Interview with Ann Reid – Executive Director, National Center for Science Education

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Ann Reid became the Executive Director of NCSE in 2014. For 15 years she worked as a research biologist at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, where she was responsible for sequencing the 1918 flu virus. She served as a Senior Program Officer at the NRC’s Board on Life Sciences for five years and most recently, as director of the American Academy of Microbiology.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Moving into 2019, what are the main newer concerns about science education for the public?

Ann Reid: In general, the past two years have seen an upsurge in activism around public school funding with teacher strikes in several states. The severe cuts to education funding seem to have reached a point where the general public is realizing that the public school system is in real trouble.

The deep cuts have affected science education too, of course, with low salaries making it impossible to keep science teaching positions filled with qualified people, slashed professional development funding making it difficult to keep current teachers up to date, and decreased budgets leading to larger class sizes and inadequate lab and field supplies.

Thus, in addition to specific concerns about how topics such as climate change and evolution are taught, there are serious systemic concerns about the health of the educational system in general.

Specifically, though, science education advocates are concerned that the extreme stance the current administration has taken on climate change, completely rejecting the clear scientific consensus, will have an impact on how the topic is taught in schools.

Similarly, the sympathetic stance the current Secretary of Education has expressed for “balancing” evolution with creationism or intelligent design concerns many people. Our sense is that these attitudes will have an effect, but largely indirectly.

The U.S. federal government has little direct control over what is taught in public schools; curriculum standards are set at the state level and priorities in meeting those standards are set at the district level. So the federal government cannot unilaterally, for example, declare that climate change should not be taught.

However, the federal government can have indirect impacts, for example by cutting funding for programs that provide extra funds for science education, or by taking down the sections of federal agency websites that include climate change teaching resources.

Most efforts to interfere with climate change or evolution education arise at the state or local level, and are occurring in the same places that they occurred before this administration.

A more pervasive, but even more indirect effect is that the increased polarization around these issues will make teachers in places where the topics are controversial more likely to avoid teaching them because of fear of conflict.

Jacobsen: What continue to be the perennial anti-science movements within America?

Reid: I think that the phrase “anti-science” confuses more than it clarifies. There isn’t really an “anti-science” movement – instead, there are interest groups that reject particular areas of science because the scientific conclusions come into direct conflict with deeply held beliefs or values.

Those who reject evolution do so because they believe it contradicts the Bible, which they believe to be literally true. These people are not anti-science in general, just anti-evolution.

Those who do not accept the reality of climate change do so because they believe the scientific community is not to be trusted on this issue – a long-standing tenet of the Republican party has been that environmentalists want to impose burdensome regulations that will cripple the economy and twist science to support that agenda.

Climate change is seen as yet another example of this “environmentalist agenda.” Again, these people would not think of themselves as “anti-science” – they see themselves as the clear-eyed realists. I’m not saying either of these stances is correct, just that it’s more useful to see where the opposition is coming from rather than using the blanket term “anti-science.”

To answer your question, though, evolution and climate change remain the topics that are most frequently targeted by efforts to interfere with how they are taught. While not really an issue when it comes to schools, there are also organized efforts to cast doubt on or reject the consensus science surrounding vaccines, GMO’s and reproductive health.

Jacobsen: With the current Trump Administration and the emboldening of misinformation networks, have things become harder in terms of the education of the public and the prevention of miseducation too?

Reid: As I mentioned in my first answer the impact of the Trump administration is indirect and serves rather to harden the existing polarization rather than to create entirely new problems. Perhaps surprisingly, the extreme positions taken by the Trump administration energize its opposition at least as much as they satisfy its base.

It seems to us at NCSE that more people are alert to the threat of interference in science education than they were before; the threats are largely in the same places they’ve always been, but people are much more attuned to them.

As an example, in 2017, the climate change-denial organization known as the Heartland Institute mailed a packet to tens of thousands of science teachers that included a pamphlet entitled “Why Scientists Disagree about Global Warming” aiming to convince teachers that they should tell their students the science around climate change is unsettled.

NCSE responded with a set of resources giving teachers the facts to counter the false claims in the mailing (here is an example), but we were not alone. The mailing drew a huge amount of media attention.

That’s all good, but what’s interesting is that Heartland sent out essentially the same packet in 2015 and while NCSE tried to draw attention to it, it was basically ignored. A lot more attention is being paid to threats to accurate science education than in the past.

Jacobsen: What allies and organizations have been instrumental in the continuation of the extended conversation and activism of the NCSE?

Reid: There are so many that I’m reluctant to begin listing them for fear of offending those I don’t mention. But certainly the National Science Teachers Association, the National Association of Biology Teachers and the National Association of Geoscience Teachers have been tireless advocates for accuracy in science education.

The Alliance for Climate Education has been a valuable partner, producing a series of webinars on NCSE’s new climate change misconception-based active learning lessons.

Jacobsen: One of the important and under-recognized members of the organization has been Eugenie Scott, especially in work regarding the creationism and evolution sociopolitical controversy. What has been the legacy through the NCSE of Darwin’s Golden Retriever?

Reid: To my mind, Genie’s most enduring contribution was to recognize early and often that it is crucial to avoid framing discussions about evolution education as battles between religion and science, or religion and reason. Most Americans are religious, but the vast majority of Christian denominations have no problem with the science of evolution.

Consistently casting the problem as one of ensuring scientific accuracy in the classroom rather than a cultural battle meant building a much larger coalition of people fighting to protect evolution education.

Similarly, when NCSE added climate change to its mission, Genie recognized that opposition to climate change grew out of deeply held values and ideological positions and that it was important to stand up for the science without condemning people’s political affiliation.

Jacobsen: What organizations and people remain problematic in their promotion of non-science or simply bad science?

Reid: Again, it is hard to come up with a definitive list. Any group advocating for an issue with a scientific component is likely to present the scientific evidence in the most convincing possible light – that might range from simply and more or less innocuously framing questions in the most appealing way all the way to outright deception.

At what point does that become “problematic”? It isn’t difficult to put the Heartland Institute on the far end of the spectrum – it does actively work to deceive and sow confusion.

Answers in Genesis, the organization responsible for building the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter, also actively attempts to present its religious beliefs as if they have a basis in science.

And, of course, there are far too many examples in the current administration of politicians and political appointees ignoring scientific evidence, at best, and actively distorting it, at worst.

The bottom line, though, is that wherever an organization or individual falls on the spectrum of presenting scientific information misleadingly – egregiously or not – NCSE’s position is that consumers and future citizens need to have the skills to evaluate claims for themselves.

A great science education needs to be accurate, of course, but perhaps even more importantly, it needs to be effective: ensuring that students leave school knowing what constitutes a good scientific question and what kind of evidence is needed to address it, how evidence is collected and evaluated, how to determine whether a website or publication is scientifically credible…in short, knowing how science works and having confidence in one’s own ability to think scientifically.

When NCSE designs evolution and climate change activities or lessons for teachers and volunteers our ultimate goal is improving learners’ ability to engage confidently with scientific questions.

Jacobsen: How can the public become involved and active in the light of the current wave of anti-science movements?

Reid: As I mentioned, people seem to be more attuned to potential threats to science education and there is more interest on the part of the media in covering the topic.

We would love to see more people paying attention to who is running for the school board in their own districts and what is going on at their state’s Department of Education, getting to know their local science teachers and volunteering at their local schools, showing up at political candidates’ events and asking questions about science and science education. We’ve always advocated for that, but it has certainly never been so important or urgent.

Jacobsen: How can people become involved through donations, volunteering of skills, provision of professional networks, and so on, with NCSE?

Reid: Donations are crucial, of course, because they allow us to maintain the capacity to respond whenever science education comes under threat.

They also allow us to expand our Teacher Ambassador program, which enlists local master teachers to train their peers in effective ways to teach evolution and climate change, and our Science Booster Club program, which brings fun, hands-on, accurate climate change and evolution activities to community events, especially in places where the topics are often avoided due to fear of conflict.

Teachers are encouraged to join our network “NCSEteach” for monthly news and resources. Anyone interested in keeping up with NCSE’s work is encouraged to join (a $45 donation gives you a subscription to our quarterly newsletter), sign up for our free e-newsletter, and following us on facebook or twitter. Contact us directly if you come across any efforts to interfere with science education in your community – we are here to help.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Ann.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

Do not forget to look into our associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, and Centre for Inquiry Canada.

Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

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