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AAAS 2005 Meeting Was Where Science Meets Society, and Sociology Was There, Too

At 125th AAAS Annual Meeting, ASA exhibits, sociological research reigns, and ASA President Duster participates in press conference

by Johanna Ebner, Public Information Office

Science advocates and national policymakers, scientists and students, parents and children all found common ground at the 2005 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), according to AAAS CEO Alan Leshner. And given the sociological relevance of the theme of AAAS’ meeting, “The Nexus: Where Science Meets Society,” ASA was a prominent exhibitor at this 125th Annual Meeting, held in Washington, DC.

Following the meeting, AAAS reported, “attendance records were broken in almost every category.” And the nearly 5,100 attendees had a choice of almost 200 interdisciplinary symposia, plenary sessions, and topical presentations, some of which included sociological papers. About 1,200 members of the press reported scientific breakthroughs including the release of the Science paper describing the first whole genome mapping effort to assess allele variation across three human populations. Finally, about 3,000 people of all ages attended the Family Science Days.

Science & Society

“AAAS members support a vital connection between science and society,” said Leshner following the meeting, and this was clearly born out in the experience of the ASA staff who manned the ASA exhibit booth. “We received a surprising amount of traffic to the ASA exhibit booth,” said Lee Herring, ASA’s Director of Public Affairs, “given that AAAS is a general science organization and there is not a high concentration among attendees representing any single discipline, including sociology.” But there was strong interest among physicists, microbiologists, geneticists, teachers, and many others, especially in ASA’s research materials (e.g., science disciplinary demographics, use of supplementary faculty, and tenure issues). ASA Section information on knowledge and science, technology, environment, medicine, addiction, and mental health on display at the booth also was of great interest, according to Herring. Sociologists (and many other disciplines) were pleased to see the American Sociological Association officially represented in the AAAS exhibit hall.

One of 252 science societies affiliated officially with AAAS, ASA was represented at the meeting in order to promote our publications, Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, the ASA centennial, and answer questions about sociology as a discipline. Our “sociological presence” fit well with the meeting’s theme, and scientists from a range of disciplines were interested in talking with staff at length about sociological research and interdisciplinary research opportunities, the press briefing concerning race and genetics (see below), and application of sociological research findings to modifying the culture of their own sciences and academic environments (e.g., improving diversity, addressing economic issues in higher education).

Long-term Affiliation

Since 1931, ASA has been formally affiliated as a disciplinary society with the AAAS, which itself is a 10,000 individual-member association with a mission to “advance science and serve society” through initiatives in science policy; international programs; science education; and more. The 2005 meeting was an opportunity for an interdisciplinary blend of scholars, scientists, and researchers to present the latest in scientific findings. This included sociologists and an array of other social scientists.

Sociology in Science Not known for publishing a great deal of material in the behavioral and social sciences (relative to the amount of high quality research available), AAAS’ Science magazine recently is showing, though admittedly anecdotally, signs that editorial practices may be more open to accepting serious research in these disciplines. Science publishes several types of material including editorials. Two especially recent examples of the latter include ASA President Troy Duster’s Policy Forum-Medicine piece in the February 18, 2005, Science and a February 11 Policy Forum-Ethics piece by sociologist Joanna Kempner, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, and co-authors Clifford Perlis of Brown University Medical School, and medical ethicist Jon Merz of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

Genes and Social Behavior

While ASA President Troy Duster was not in attendance at the AAAS meeting, he participated in a teleconferenced press conference relevant to his Science piece, titled “Race and Reification in Science.” In the article he discusses the danger of scientists (and the general public) likely misinterpreting recent genetic research findings and believing that socially constructed racial categories actually exist at the level of genes when in fact they don’t. Duster believes the potential for erroneous “reification of race” is high because readers easily misunderstand the conceptually complex genetic findings regarding variability across groups of people. “There is a complex feedback loop and interaction effect between phenotype and social practices related to that phenotype,” Duster wrote. (See accompanying article.)

Sociologists’ Research

Kempner’s article, titled “Forbidden Knowledge,” invoked classic sociological insight to explore social controls over science, which constrain the conduct, funding, publication, and public use of scientific research. It received a good deal of press coverage including a major story on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. While these Science magazine articles played a major role in legitimizing the social science focus of the AAAS meeting and anchoring its “Where Science Meets Society” theme, there were also several paper sessions that featured sociological research. For example, a symposium on “New Developments in Human and Social Dynamics: Dimensions of Diversity” focused on dimensions of human diversity pertaining to human identity and what that foretells for human action and social behavior. In the symposium, sociologist David Harris, Cornell University, presented on the social constructions of race and its policy and research implications, and sociologist Guillermina Jasso, New York University, presented results from the New Immigrant Survey, a multimillion-dollar, multi-agency federally funded demographic research project.

Another “meeting of the sociology minds” occurred at the “Race and Ethnic Inequality in College Enrollment: New Data on Old Questions” symposium, which presented research from and was moderated by sociologists. Adam Gamoran, University of Wisconsin-Madison, moderated with researchers Charles Hirschman, University of Washington (on the difference in employment in the transition from high school to college); Douglas Massey, Princeton University, and Mary J. Fischer, University of Connecticut (on the effects of affirmative action in higher education); and Marta Tienda, Princeton University (on winners and losers in the top-10-percent college admission policy in Texas).

Other sociologists in attendance at the AAAS Annual Meeting include Harriet Presser, University of Maryland, as ASA’s official AAAS liaison; Cora Bagley Marrett, University of Wisconsin System, who presented a paper on science and technology inequalities; and Wendy Baldwin, University of Kentucky, who addressed issues surrounding assessment of Institutional Review Boards.

Woman of “Firsts”

The meeting was kicked off with the presidential address from Shirley Ann Jackson, AAAS President and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute President, who urged scientists and engineers to renew their commitment to public engagement and serving humanity, saying that the gains to be achieved outweigh the risk that some battles might be lost along the way. Jackson is the first African-American woman to lead a national research university, the first to lead AAAS, and the first to be elected to the National Academy of Engineering, and the first to receive a doctorate from MIT in any subject.

Sociological Opportunity

Next year’s meeting (February 16-20) will take place in St. Louis, Missouri, with the theme “Grand Challenges, Great Opportunities.” Sociologists are urged to submit session proposals for the 2006 AAAS meetings, which attracts very significant press attendance. The deadline for submission is May 2, 2005. To enhance likelihood of acceptance, panelists should be confirmed, not just invited; make a convincing case that the topic will appeal to a broad audience of physical, biological, and social scientists; and the topic should be interdisciplinary, multi-institutional and diverse in terms of participants. For more information, see