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How To Bridge Science And Society


How do you bridge science and society? That's the theme of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science which is taking place in San Diego this week.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting is in San Diego from February 18 - 22, 2010. Family Science Days is Saturday and Sunda, February 20 and 21 at the San Diego Convention Center.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): In many ways science and society get along very well. We all love the latest breakthroughs in medical research, the newest high-tech gadgets, or the awesome pictures from outer space.

But when new discoveries come up against vested interests or long-held beliefs, then science and society often have a falling out, and it usually winds up that society is the loser.

For the first time in its 162 year history, the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting is being held here in San Diego this week. The theme of the conference is bridging science and society. And I’m very pleased to welcome my guests. Dr. Peter Agre is a Nobel Prize- winning chemist and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He’s also director of the Malaria Research Center at Johns Hopkins. And Dr. Agre, welcome to These Days.

DR. PETER AGRE (President, American Association for the Advancement of Science): Thank you, Maureen. It’s great to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And Dr. Marye Anne Fox, Chancellor of UC San Diego, as well as distinguished professor of chemistry. Dr. Fox, welcome.

DR. MARYE ANNE FOX (Chancellor, University of California San Diego): Thanks, Maureen, for having us.

CAVANAUGH: And we’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. If you have a question or a comment on how science and society can improve their relationship, give us a call, 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Dr. Agre, why have you chosen the theme “Bridging Science and Society” for this year’s conference?

DR. AGRE: Well, the Triple-AS meeting is a wide range of science, and to pick a topic that was reflective of the interests of one or another seemed inappropriate. Science has some general concerns and I think reaching out to the public is one of them that we all have. It seemed like an easy title for a wonderful meeting here in this beautiful city.

CAVANAUGH: Do you think there is a disconnect, though, between science and the general public?

DR. AGRE: Yes, there is, and it’s unfortunate but it’s something that I think we could remedy.

DR. FOX: I think, Mau…

DR. AGRE: I think we…


DR. FOX: I think, Maureen, that one the themes we’re going to look at is climate literacy as well as just general scientific literacy and how policy impacts collections of data.

CAVANAUGH: Do you think that perhaps, Dr. Agre, that it all comes back to education?

DR. AGRE: Well, education certainly is a very important part of getting the word out and if there’s something more important than that, I can’t imagine what it would be.

CAVANAUGH: And tell us a bit about the goals of the American Association for the Advancement of Science because, as I say, your organization hasn’t been here before.

DR. AGRE: Well, and I can’t understand why they have not been here before. I think it might’ve been the fear that if they held it in San Diego they would never want to hold it anywhere else.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, you qualify.

DR. AGRE: Yeah.

DR. FOX: I hope many of them decide to stay.

DR. AGRE: Go back to Baltimore with my snow shovel. So the meeting, though, has a broad range of topics that’ll be covered. And science really is wonderful but there are instances where individuals, sometimes very vociferous individuals, will use science as a whipping boy, usually objecting to some detail or another which can be amplified, made into a so-called controversy. That doesn’t mean there’s really a scientific controversy. In England, they have a group called The Flat Earth Society and no matter what you say, you will not change their point of view. Is there a controversy about the earth being flat? I don’t think so.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly right. Now, how many scientists will be here as part of your organization’s meeting?

DR. AGRE: Anticipated 8,000…


DR. AGRE: …and from 50 different countries.

CAVANAUGH: That’s amazing. And, Dr. Fox, I wanted to ask you, since this meeting is going to be here in San Diego and you are here in San Diego, how important a role does science and research play right here?

DR. FOX: Oh, I think the success of San Diego is based on success in science and engineering. It’s reflected in the fact that I’m serving, representing the University of California at San Diego with Irwin Jacobs from Qualcomm, a person who was a member of our faculty and turned into a spectacular success in the technological world. We hope that there’ll be a comparable showcase for many of the things that are going on at UCSD. In fact, we know there are 22 such presentations ranging from visualization to global health.

CAVANAUGH: At this conference.

DR. FOX: At this conference.

CAVANAUGH: That’s amazing. And what impact, though? You know we hear an awful lot about science being squeezed by state budget cuts and education being squeezed. And I wonder, what kinds – are you going to have to cut science programs? Are you going to have to cut back on science programs because of these budget cuts?

DR. FOX: Well, it is true that we’ve had significant budget cuts. The UC San Diego campus had endured an $85 million cut last year and we’re looking for some further cuts in the coming year unless the economy turns around very rapidly. We always represent our top priority as our academic research for one of the best research universities in the world. And so this is really a showcase in many ways and it, I think, will make it clear to the people of San Diego who attend the meeting that we are worldwide players and that an investment in higher education makes good sense for the functioning of the city as well as the university.

CAVANAUGH: So is that one of the way (sic) that you’re coping with these cutbacks, is by stepping up a sort of outreach program to let people know, hey, we’re here, this is what we’re doing?

DR. FOX: We’re very grateful that so many have stepped up in an advocacy role to make the case for investment in higher education. And higher education is what you’re going to see as part of this meeting, visualization of things that have never been seen before, supercomputer computational work that allows you to understand models for scientific process. It’ll be a very exciting time and we also will have an opportunity to meet scientists and to see them in their everyday work as real people who make real contributions.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Dr. Marye Anne Fox, who’s Chancellor of UC San Diego, and Dr. Peter Agre who is a Nobel Prize-winning chemist and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. We are speaking about the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting. It’s being held here in San Diego, starting this week. I believe it’s tomorrow. And we’re taking your phone calls if you have questions about certain topics in science. 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call. And, actually, let me take a call right now. Scott is calling us from Oceanside. Good morning, Scott, and welcome to These Days.

SCOTT (Caller, Oceanside): Good morning. I want to say thank you very much for taking my call. It’s indeed an honor to be able to have this opportunity to voice a question and possibly a comment, and I’ll get with that. What I really – to bring up and maybe have a reflection on is so typically the confluence of society and science is tainted by political correctness, the need to maintain political correctness and the taboos that are really, you know, controversial. And it seems now especially that a lot of issues so important to be addressed are often shied away from just because it’s often not worth the hassle of addressing and dealing with the conflict or alienating certain people with certain viewpoints. What are ways…

CAVANAUGH: Scott, yeah…

SCOTT: …that scientists and those directing research are going to look at tackling or going to have – are planning to tackle maybe the controversy and put that to rest in order to be able to open doors to research in some areas that are controversial?


DR. FOX: Scott, I’d say that the first thing is, we don’t shy away from controversy. We have research being conducted, as does virtually any top rate research university, into all the questions that are of importance to society today. It’s very important to have a set of data on which one can discuss and speculate in order to find a final resolution about these ideas.

CAVANAUGH: And Dr. Agre, the point you were making before, just because somebody has a disparate opinion doesn’t necessarily make it a scientific controversy.

DR. AGRE: Yes, I think a scientific controversy will be when the real data set is observed by different individuals with scientific training and they have a different interpretation. That could be a controversy. But to have one individual with minimal background picking an issue, exaggerating it, misrepresenting it, and, see, well there, you see, we have a controversy is – that’s a misstatement.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, does it disturb you, does it concern you, Dr. Agre, that there seems to be so – fewer and fewer people that have that basic scientific literacy that can understand the value of data and how to look at it and how to evaluate opposing viewpoints within a scientific context?

DR. AGRE: There is concern that American school children are showing less and less promise in science and mathematics, science in particular. But this isn’t a reflection of their lack of ability. I think we need to make sure we are able to reach out and engage them. I think children are inherently interested in creative arts and science. Our objective is to do what we can to bring that out. My daughter, Claire, taught for a year before she went to graduate school. She taught science in Italy. Her job was to have a science club but the little boys insisted they had to play soccer. They call it calcio.


DR. AGRE: So the little girls played the little boys in soccer and then they had a science club, and the science club became so much fun that they wanted to do science club first. And things like using a magnifying glass to focus light into a burning point is really very fascinating for children. Of course the little boys are frying ants pretty soon but, Miss Claire, it’s science, it’s science.

DR. FOX: I think one of the things you’ll find most interesting is that we have a science festival coming up in April where members of the general public can come down to Petco Park and see some of the things that Peter was just describing.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, Dr. Fox, is there any evaluation that UCSD makes about what the literacy is of students coming in in the sciences?

DR. FOX: Well, of course, our admission standards are quite high…


DR. FOX: …and I think scientific literacy is probably required to do well enough to be admitted to many of the UC schools. But we, too, recognize that this is a problem. That’s why we initiated the California Teach Initiative, which is focusing on STEM education, science, technology, engineering and mathematics. We also are participating in a grant from the National Science Foundation in what’s called the Socrates Program, where our graduate students and post-doctoral fellows actually go into the K-12 classroom and talk about how things are proceeding. It’s an emphasis on discovery as part of scientific education that will motivate students to do just what Peter was suggesting.

CAVANAUGH: And if we have lost our way, Dr. Fox, in the earlier grades when it comes to science and math education, why is that? What went wrong?

DR. FOX: Well, I think many times science is taught as a sequence of things to be memorized, various plants and plant parts and biology, equations in chemistry and in physics. And very often we lose our students when they haven’t yet gotten to a stage where they understand the exciting part of science.


DR. AGRE: And if I could cut in, I’d like to point out that the people of San Diego don’t have to wait to April to have a science program for families because on Saturday and Sunday from eleven o’clock to five o’clock there will be Family Science Days at the convention center and this will include hands-on activities, and I don’t want to give away any surprises but when the children put their hands on scientific instruments, making observations with light and heat, it’s really amazing. It’s like the children see magic but they understand the magic. And there’ll be other dialogues, meeting scientists for middle school and high school students. So I think this is a great opportunity for the people in this part of the state.

CAVANAUGH: I think it’s one of the most exciting parts of your conference for the general public, and I want to talk a lot more about that. Dr. Agre, just following up on the question that I asked Dr. Fox, it seems to me that there comes a point in general education where the people who gravitate toward science just go for that full bore and then the majority of students just seem to turn away from the sciences, and I wonder if there’s any idea on how to get everybody into one sort of common scientific literacy package, in other words, how to maintain that enthusiasm that young children have for science as you move up in the school year.

DR. AGRE: Well, I think it would be very important to engage those who don’t go into science because they are citizens, they will vote, they’ll pay taxes. And it’s important that they have at least some basic science understanding. And that’s where we have real concerns, and I think it’s not a specific science issue, it’s a part of education. A declining science literacy reflects a declining literacy. Half of Americans don’t read a single book in a given year. And not only are they not reading science books, they’re not reading any books. And so I think it’s very important for those who don’t choose to go into science to understand what antibiotics do and what they will not do.

DR. FOX: And if we could convince people how important it is to have that basic understanding, I think serendipitous branches in career decisions would be less random. I know myself, when I was a junior in high school I could either take second year algebra or band. And I loved the band but if I had not taken second year algebra instead of band, I’d be in a quite different position today.

CAVANAUGH: Absolutely. We have to take a short break. When we return, we’ll continue talking about the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting right here in San Diego this week, and continue to take your calls about your science questions. 1-888-895-5727 is the number. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guests are Dr. Peter Agre. He’s a Nobel Prize-winning chemist, President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. And Dr. Marye Ann Fox, Chancellor of UC San Diego. We’re talking about the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting starting tomorrow here in San Diego. And I think I’m going to call it Triple-AS.

DR. AGRE: We call it that.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. It’ll make me sound like I know what I’m talking about. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And why not take a call right now. Lauren is calling us from Carlsbad. Good morning, Lauren. Welcome to These Days.

LAUREN (Caller, Carlsbad): Good morning. I like your program very much.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you very much.

LAUREN: Thank you for taking my call. Okay, I have a medical problem. Okay, I have ovarian cancer and we’re going through the second set of chemos at this point because the first one didn’t work. We were trying to find information on this to see what, you know, what is being done currently in science kind of thing and we’ve discovered that there is not really an open environment for sharing scientific information between hospitals, research hospitals and other kinds of hospitals, and it’s very hard to get information. So I am wondering, you know, whether this kind of topic would be brought up at your conference?

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that call, and I want to ask you to pause on your answer for just a minute because Wayne in University Heights has a very similar question. Good morning, Wayne. Welcome to These Days.

WAYNE (Caller, University Heights): Yes, good morning. My message to these folks is, please, take down this wall and bridge the moat and accept your responsibility as scientific institutions to please disseminate rather than to restrict scientific information. You cannot at once decry the fact that the so-called general public doesn’t appreciate science and then hold it away from them.

CAVANAUGH: Wayne, thank you so much. So another call about sharing information. Dr. Agre, is there a problem with this?

DR. AGRE: I think the problem comes with the complexity of some of the scientific data. In fact, if either of our two good listeners would go to the National Institutes of Health website, they will be able to, in fact, log on to information, current information, being published on a number of health issues, cancer in particular. So I don’t think that this is a representation of scientific secrets. On the other hand, scientists oftentimes don’t make their information public until they’ve validated it or they’re convinced it’s correct and it goes through the proper review process. Scientific journals are available to the public. They’re very difficult to read. When I read outside of my own specialty, I need help. So I think this is not an easy issue. The first caller, who has a very difficult clinical situation, I’m very sympathetic and many of us have had similar situations with relatives, and we’re hoping that there’s some breakthrough somewhere that will change everything. And I think science, and the medical sciences in particular, do a very good job of making sure that what is available is made public but without raising false hope. False hope is also very damaging. We have to make sure we know what we’re doing and I think sometimes that breeds some impatience.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, go ahead, Dr. Fox.

DR. FOX: Well, science relies on replication and until we can be sure of the data, confusing discussion can often occur. I, too, am quite sympathetic and I hope you’ll work with our community outreach at the Moores Cancer Center to make available whatever can be done in addition to what Peter suggested at the National Institutes of Health.

CAVANAUGH: I want to follow up on a comment you made, Dr. Fox, about the idea of climate change research and how much that’s come into the public fore and how much debate there is in public – in the public but, really, the scientific debate is not over whether or not the climate is changing. Where is that disconnect as far as you’re seeing?

DR. FOX: Again, as data is collected, you become more and more firm in the kind of conclusions that can be drawn if there’s replication and reformulation of a problem in a slightly different way. That’s why we think of climate literacy as additive or supplementary to the basic research which is being done, for example, on ocean acidity, carbon content in the atmosphere and so forth.

CAVANAUGH: And yet, Dr. Agre, there is this perception that a lot of people have that there – somehow scientists just don’t want to give in on this topic, that there’s a lot of controversy over climate change, the data isn’t solid. But, you know, there’s this resistance to this information. How do you explain that?

DR. AGRE: I think oftentimes people will have an emotional buy-in on one side or the other and are reluctant to concede that they may not have all of the information. And it is true that global climate change is complex. One can look at the data from different angles but the great majority of scientists knowledgeable in this area agree on most of the facts and there is, I think, with very little doubt a human contribution to the global climate change. Whether this is the majority or less than the majority is in debate, but this is not an issue of controversy. There are others who, for commercial or political reasons, look for some glitch in the data or misrepresentation of facts by a small number of scientists and say, aha, gotcha, the whole thing is bogus.

DR. FOX: And, of course, we have standards in conduct of science that would minimize these difficulties. I would refer our reader to “On Being A Scientist,” published by the National Academy of Sciences through their National Academy Press to indicate what those standards are and then to evaluate whether the are being pursued in climate and in other scientific questions.

CAVANAUGH: You know, President Obama, in his State of the State (sic) address, I mean, State of the Nation (sic) address, excuse me, he basically pointed out that America falling behind in the sciences is giving other countries the opportunity to advance and get ahead of us in ways that perhaps we don’t want them to be ahead of us. And I’m wondering how you see, Dr. Agre, science connected to the global economy and how much science we do here in America being connected to our position in the global economy.

DR. AGRE: Well, I have a somewhat different point of view. I think when science advances in other countries, we all benefit. It’s not like there’s a given sum and then that will be divided up amongst the victors. The Olympics have medal counts.


DR. AGRE: Science doesn’t really operate that way. Of course, the United States has received the majority of Nobel Prize medals, on the other hand, that trend is changing not because the Americans are giving up on science, because other countries are buying in. The little country of Singapore, a small island state with no natural resources other than its position and the intellect and drive of its people, is making science a priority. I think we should not bemoan that but perhaps take their example of using science as something to invest in rather than seeing it as a charity.

DR. FOX: In other words, we should be poised to jump onto those scientific discoveries that advance the frontiers of knowledge for everyone. I think San Diegans can understand that very well. If you look back to the sixties or seventies, this was a community which was funded essentially by the Defense Department and yet, because we’ve made judicious investments in higher education, whole new biotechnology and wireless communication arenas have developed and have changed the prosperity of the city.

CAVANAUGH: And speaking of advancements in where San Diego is going scientifically, I want to point out, Dr. Fox, and I’d like you to tell us a bit more about this, construction starts soon on what will become an important part of San Diego’s science research community. It’s called the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine. Tell us a little bit more about that.

DR. FOX: This is really a very exciting development in which four research agencies on the mesa, that is the University of California at San Diego, Salk Institute, the Burnham Institute and the Scripps Research Institute have all come together with the support of external philanthropy as well as support from the state government to have shared equipment and shared seminars for production of stem – top quality stem cell research. Construction is going to start next month, finally, after a number of complications, but being able to cooperate across institutional barriers is something we’re very, very proud of, especially on a question which is as important as stem cell research.

CAVANAUGH: And what role does UCSD play in this?

DR. FOX: UCSD is one of the founding partners. It’s, of course, a larger institution than the other three partners in this particular idea and so it’s assuming a leadership role among collaborators.


DR. AGRE: San Diego, I think, is particularly well suited for such an endeavor because in addition to the programs that are well known, you have pioneers in the area. Professor Larry Goldstein at UCSD, Professor Ron Evans at Salk, these are internationally recognized leaders in the area. This is going to be a very important addition to the scientific platform here in San Diego.

DR. FOX: Larry Goldstein, in particular, is presenting one of the topical lectures at the Triple-AS meeting and I think that would be something the public would enjoy very much.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Dr. Agre, I know that you have been dubbed America’s science diplomat. I wonder, is that within America or outside the country?

DR. AGRE: I think it started as a small child, the smallest of six kids in a Norwegian family. The only way to survive was to be diplomatic. The recent visits, though, that I participated in with the Center for Science Diplomacy at the Triple-AS has caused some recognition of this, and I was not the sole organizer, I was a participant. But we made a recent science diplomatic visit to Cuba and another one to the North Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. And I think some of the press has dubbed scientific diplomat because of that but I think it’s something that’s been going on for quite some time in science.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Lynn is calling from La Jolla. Good morning, Lynn, and welcome to These Days.

LYNN (Caller, La Jolla): Good morning, everyone. I am a graduate of a unique program at the Montana State University Bozeman that was started several years ago that provides a Master’s of Fine Arts in science and natural history filmmaking. Just want to cajole your guests into hiring some of us. There’s such a huge erosion in the mainstream media’s commitment to science reporting when budgets get constrained that there are a whole bunch of us out here making infomercials about food products instead of using our science-related backgrounds and our MFAs. It’s – I don’t mean to be too facetious here. It’s a great program and that layer of the media between the scientists and the message that gets out to the lay public is, you know, obviously critical…


LYNN: …and to the extent that we can, you know, sort of steer the ship away from sensationalism back to the really exciting, you know, sort of well balanced science coverage that people who are properly trained are capable of producing, you know, I – Let’s go do that.

CAVANAUGH: Lynn, thank you for the call. You know, we’re going to follow up our talk here with a talk specifically about how science is disseminated to the media and the public perception of that information when they get it. But I wonder, Dr. Agre, what – I’d like to get your take on it, how well do scientists communicate to the public?

DR. AGRE: Well, this is a very important topic because as scientists, we’re trained to be analytical, to be observant, to be creative, but we’re not trained to communicate to the public. And this has to change because much of the scientific enterprises involved in collecting data which will not be inherently interesting and then something unforeseen happens and the public will be very interested if it’s properly presented. So Lynn, in her call, would be a good person to help do that. I think this is an area where we can improve and help bridge science with society.

DR. FOX: And it conveys as well the excitement of science because when you’re conducting research and you actually make one of these breakthroughs, there’s no feeling like it on earth.

DR. AGRE: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: And I know that UCSD is very, very forthright about trying to communicate all the things that happen in the School of Medicine and other scientific places on UCSD to the public because you come out with public relations messages and you have a whole department for that.

DR. FOX: We do, indeed. In just a few moments, we’ll be entertaining a workshop for visiting journalists to show off some of the strengths at UC San Diego in neuroscience and visualization, in computation, the list goes on and on.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Kathryn is calling from I-5. Good morning, Kathryn, and welcome to These Days.

KATHRYN (Caller, Mobile, I-5): Good morning. Thank you guys so much for taking my call. I am so excited to be talking about this topic. So I actually work for a program in science education at UCSD and I – one of the major things that we are trying to do is to create scientific literacy and so I was incredibly interested to hear your guests speak about that and to speak about also how scientists communicate the information that they find because it is often, well, it sounds like gibberish to the rest of us.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you. Thank you so much. And tell us more, Dr. Agre, if you would. I stopped you when you were trying to talk about the Family Science Days because I want to leave that message with people at the end of our conversation. Family Science Days this weekend really sound quite remarkable.

DR. AGRE: This is a fantastic event and a great opportunity. My wife, who’s a preschool teacher, is coming out, not to hear me talk but to go to Family Science Day. It’s wonderful to see children, children from all different backgrounds, getting engaged with demonstrations where they can participate, putting their hands on as well as meeting scientists and learning. It’s a colorful, fun-filled activity with a very positive message. For me, and for many, this might be the best part of the meeting.

CAVANAUGH: Now I see here that one of the things being discussed is the physics of superheroes and you have the people from the TV show “Numbers” solving crime with math. What other things are people going to be able to experience?

DR. AGRE: Well, I don’t want to give away any surprises…


DR. AGRE: …but there’ll be personalities, there’ll be exhibits and, again, the opportunity for the children to get right involved, not reading a book about science but being part of the event itself, part of the display. Hands-on magnets, that’s a very different event from reading about magnetism.

CAVANAUGH: And why is this a part of your conference? Why do you make this a part?

DR. AGRE: Because science is a young person’s endeavor. All scientists really get involved in science early on in their careers and it’s usually an individual, a teacher or a parent or a scout leader that has created interest in children. And I firmly believe that all children are natural scientists and for some of them, they’ll choose to pursue it. And our opportunity to bring this to their attention is, I think, a great opportunity which the Triple-AS has always taken seriously and I think this may be the best ever Family Science Day. It is…

DR. FOX: We really strongly recommend it as complementary to things that are already available in an informal science education. The Fleet Science Museum, for example, in Balboa Park, does an excellent job and, as I mentioned, UC San Diego is going to be sponsoring a comparable activity to the one Triple-AS is doing just in a couple months. So if you are – if you have to miss for some unknown reason, because of conflict or whatever this weekend, do come see us at UCSD a couple months down the road.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you both. I know you have such a busy week ahead. Thank you for taking some time to come in and tell us about this. I appreciate it.

DR. AGRE: Thanks, Maureen.

DR. FOX: Good to have you.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Dr. Peter Agre and Dr. Marye Anne Fox. And I want to let you all know the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting is here in San Diego, starts tomorrow, runs through February 22nd. For families, the Family Science Day is free this Saturday and Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. at the San Diego Convention Center. If you want more information, go to And if you’d like to post your comments to what you’ve heard, Coming up, more about Triple-AS and the image of scientists. That’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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