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M. Lee Allison

Cofounder of the Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science talks about the Year of Science

by Celia Henry Arnaud
January 26, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 4

Credit: Arizona Geological Survey
Credit: Arizona Geological Survey

THE COALITION on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS) has declared 2009 the Year of Science. This loose affiliation of more than 600 scientific and educational organizations anticipates a year’s worth of activities to bring science to the public.

“There’s not one big national event or series of events,” says M. Lee Allison, state geologist and director of the Arizona Geological Survey, in Tucson, and COPUS cofounder. “It’s really a grassroots effort. We’re trying to coordinate activities among hundreds or probably even thousands of groups and activities across the country over the year.”

Each month has a different theme. “We’re not rolling everything out at the beginning of the year. Things are going to evolve and develop throughout the year,” Allison says. “This is very much a low-budget, low-profile, grassroots kind of effort.” The year kicks off with the process and nature of science in January and finishes with science and health in December. Chemistry is November’s theme.

COPUS launched Year of Science earlier this month with an appearance by Allison on the National Public Radio show “Science Friday” and with an event at the meeting of the Society for Integrative & Comparative Biology.

The coalition started planning Year of Science more than two years ago, Allison says. This year “was really the first year we felt we’d have enough momentum that we could carry off something like this,” he says.

This year is a fitting choice for COPUS’s Year of Science. COPUS got its start in the battles over teaching evolution, and this year marks two major evolution anniversaries: Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday on Feb. 12 and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” on Nov. 24.

His own experience in the trenches of the evolution war spurred Allison to start COPUS. When creationists on the Kansas Board of Education put Darwin “on trial” in May 2005, Allison was the science adviser to Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. He helped spearhead the scientific community’s boycott of the school board’s shenanigans, writing press packets and organizing briefings. Because the governor’s office wanted to avoid giving credence to the board’s activity, the chief of staff suggested, only half jokingly, that Allison leave town during the trial until the storm blew over. Allison attended a conference that he usually attended but had planned to skip because of the brouhaha.

At that conference, Allison chatted with Herman Zimmerman, then-head of the Earth Sciences Division at the National Science Foundation, and told him that Darwin was on trial. Allison complained to Zimmerman that the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based nonprofit that supports intelligent design as an alternative to natural selection and evolution, “is spending a million dollars per year on a propaganda campaign to demonize science and to tear science down in this country.” Zimmerman agreed, Allison recalls, that the scientific community ought to be able to come up with a million dollars per year to promote good science.

Zimmerman encouraged Allison to write a white paper for NSF and organize a workshop on the topic. Allison teamed up with Judy Scotchmoor, assistant director for education and public programs at the University of California Museum of Paleontology (UCMP), in Berkeley, and they brought approximately 15 people together in January 2006.

“Judy and I kicked it off with this white paper, but we brought together movers and shakers and thinkers and influential people,” Allison says.

A centerpiece of COPUS’s effort is the website, which was launched on Jan. 6. The website guides visitors through an overview of the process of science. In addition, it provides resources for teachers at all levels, from kindergarten through college.

COPUS was getting started at the same time that several groups published reports on the state of science in the U.S., including “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” from the National Research Council and “Tapping America’s Potential” from a coalition of business organizations. “COPUS independently hit a nerve at the same time that the rest of the country—the business, academic, and government segments—was recognizing the same problems and concerns,” Allison says.

SINCE THEN, many organizations have stepped forward to support COPUS’s cause. The American Institute of Biological Sciences provided seed money and a full-time staff member for logistical support. In addition, the Geological Society of America, UCMP, and the National Science Teachers Association sponsor COPUS. The American Association for the Advancement of Science has been involved since the beginning.

COPUS is encouraging the development of regional “hubs,” which are working groups located in areas where several member organizations are clustered. So far, members can network at 14 hubs to share ideas and resources and to discuss best (or worst) practices.

“It seemed there was a need for COPUS and for bringing together people who were trying to do this on their own,” Allison says. “The important thing is to realize you’re not on your own. Virtually every organization, every school, every professional group is doing similar things.”

With so many groups doing similar things, is there a need for a group like COPUS? Allison argues yes.

Participants at the first workshop were “blown away by the scale and scope” of the activities each person was involved in, but there weren’t connections between the organizations they represented. “We saw thousands of stovepipe activities,” Allison says. “We ought to be connecting, sharing, and learning from each other.”



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