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The Executive Officer’s Column

Demystifying ASA’s Public Statements

Sally T. Hillsman, Executive Officer

From time to time, ASA members learn of newly issued official positions of the Association made by Council or the membership. Some members may wonder how such statements originate and what process governs their development and approval. ASA members themselves are the source of many proposed statements. Others originate within the ASA Council. Statements can take the form of amicus briefs offered to U.S. courts, official positions taken by Council, and member resolutions approved by vote of the entire membership. Through these ASA makes known—to the public and targeted audiences—the sentiments of the U.S. sociological research and practice community on matters involving the profession or discipline and on a variety of timely and relevant issues. The latter are typically of national or even international importance about which debate and decision-making benefit from the injection of sociological knowledge and perspective.

Getting Heard

The briefs, statements, and resolutions comprise a body of official positions of the Association designed to drive science-based knowledge to problems in the real world. They are a key way, though not the only way, in which the Association can bring sociological research and knowledge into academic or public discourse. Accordingly, ASA works to disseminate the statements through the mass media and keeps members informed through the electronic Member News and Notes newsletter, Footnotes, and the ASA website.

Not all official statements of the Association, however, arise from Council. In the April 2003 issue of this Vantage Point column (see, I addressed official Association statements that emerge from the members rather than from Council. In the 2003 ASA election, for example, the ASA voting membership expressed its opinion about the United States engaging in war in Iraq. Voters overwhelmingly approved a statement originating with ASA members who utilized ASA’s formal petition process, described in ASA Bylaws Article II, Section 8, which is accessible on the Governance page of the ASA website.

A “Player” in Science Policy

Readers can view the seven official statements made by ASA since 2002 on the Governance page of the ASA website. Council issued its most recent, unanimous statement on the importance of state governments not allowing religious ideology to interfere with the teaching of science in K-12 public education. The impetus for this statement was a result of the Association’s engagement in the science policy arena in Washington, DC, where ASA is an increasingly credible player in matters involving policies that impinge on the viability of science generally.

In early 2006 ASA was invited to participate in an ad hoc group convened by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to assess the threat to public science education by the so-called “intelligent design” movement. Shortly thereafter, we were alerted to the situation of a well-regarded McGill University science educator whose sociologically focused research grant application to the Canadian equivalent of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), was declined because the pivotal review committee challenged his assumption that the theory of biological evolution was valid. The researcher had proposed studying the impact of the creationism and intelligent design movement on U.S. science achievement. ASA, of course, took no position on the agency’s funding decision about this application, but as an organization representing scientists, we objected to the implication of the review: “At the very least, the statement implies that the religious concept of ‘intelligent design’ is on parallel footing scientifically with the scientific concept of biological evolution and is therefore a viable alternative explanation of a natural phenomenon,” said ASA’s letter to SSHRC. ASA has received nothing but praise for our defense of the researcher and for Council’s subsequent statement on the teaching of science in public education.

The statements endorsed by Council are typically in defense of the scientific enterprise or based on widely accepted sociological research. While the AAAS-initiated effort to assess the threat to U.S. science education merged with efforts at the National Academy of Sciences, it became clear that disciplinary societies such as ASA should be formally on record regarding public science education. With increasing threats to science at the national level (see, for example, the 2004 ASA Statement on the U.S. Government Vetting of Scientists to Serve on International Advisory Bodies and the ASA Statement on Maintaining the Integrity of U.S. Presidential Appointments of Scientists), it is necessary that ASA be engaged with all science disciplines to successfully address these issues.

Science Fights Back the Attacks

While high school biology education is under attack today, tomorrow may bring attacks on social science education. Indeed, a U.S. Senator has already given ideologues support in a public hearing last May questioning the value of basic social science. We must be “at the table” with our friends in other disciplines. As NSF Director Arden Bement stated at the November advisory meeting of the NSF Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate, “the physical sciences need the social sciences.” And, we know that social science benefited this year as other sciences came to our defense when were under attack in the Senate. AAAS Chief Executive Officer Alan Leshner expressed most succinctly the symbiotic interdependencies of today’s science disciplines when he testified before the Senate Science and Space Subcommittee that “[e]very major issue facing modern society and every major issue facing our economic competitiveness will ultimately be multidisciplinary in nature…[requiring] the integration of the physical sciences or biological sciences with the social and behavioral sciences.” Demystifying ASA’s Public Statements

Sally T. Hillsman, Executive Officer