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Bruce Alberts - editor Science magazine -

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Bruce Alberts - editor Science magazine

The journal Science was first published in 1880. Regarding climate change Alberts says there is no
debate among scientists. Politicians will continue to argue. He says papers challenging climate
change aren't published because they don't pass peer review, the method which applies to all papers
published in key journals. He points to astrophysics as an area which is expecting enormous growth
in the next few years due to technical advancement.

Transcript

Robyn Williams: Bruce Alberts is a top scientist too, a former present of the National Academy of
Science in the USA. Now he's editor of the great journal Science, often mentioned in this program.
So how is he coping in publishing?

Bruce Alberts: I'm still not on top of it. I've found actually in every job I've had (I've had many
different kinds of jobs throughout my career) that it takes me a year of actually working on
something before I really get familiar with it and learn all the ins and outs. But I'm slowly
catching on. Putting out a magazine every week is sort of a miracle. We have the inauguration, the
city is closed down for two days, and still the magazine comes out. I'm actually not sure how it
happens.

Robyn Williams: It's been coming out for many, many years, hasn't it.

Bruce Alberts: Yes, since 1880 and they've never missed an editorial. I'm responsible for making
sure there's an editorial every week. I was hoping that there had been somebody else who had missed
one but I'm not that well organised and sometimes it's pretty close.

Robyn Williams: Let me ask you some things about science in general. Talking about editorials, I
remember one that your predecessor Don Kennedy had which was headlined Debate Over about climate
change. Was he right?

Bruce Alberts: I think among scientists the debate is over, of course not among politicians. The
problem is always in science that you can always find scientists who take the contrary view, that's
how science advances, and so you could always find a scientist who will take any position on any
issue, and those who don't want to believe in climate change do that. Often the media feel they
have to give a balanced view, so they have one of each kind. My old job with the National Academy
of Science, its major role is to really tell the government what the consensus opinion of science
is and try to avoid that kind of confusion that happens when you could find testimony...scientists
on every side. And almost always the consensus of the scientific community is correct, and
certainly what you should bet on when looking forward towards the future.

My academy did several reports, the most memorable one perhaps was for George W. Bush when he was
going to Europe in 2001, and suddenly people in the White House asked us 14 questions about climate
change. We did a very rapid report for him that basically said what we would say again today, that
it's 95% certain that human actions are causing serious global warming. And when you have odds of
95% that your house is going to burn down, you'll do something about it.

Robyn Williams: Of course you've got a tremendous overview of the published papers, not only in
your own journal but in other journals. Out of 1,000 papers on climate change, how many can you
remember that go against the trend? Any?

Bruce Alberts: Well, I get lots of complaints from people who want to publish papers saying climate
change doesn't exist, but they have a hard time getting their papers published because they don't
pass peer review. So there are actually very few papers that get published in the peer review
literature that seriously challenge in any way the basic hypothesis. As in evolution (we're at a
meeting on evolution right now), there are always things you don't understand, and the creationists
use those things you don't understand, the 'missing links', to challenge the whole idea of
evolution. In the same way some people use the few things we don't understand (we never understand
everything) to challenge the whole idea of climate change. It's not a valid way of talking about
science.

Robyn Williams: No, there's always doubt about some detail, but I just want to get a picture
of...given the fact that there's so much politics surrounding climate change, the science is
something that a few people in the academies and a few people in journals can have an overview of,
and of course you've got the privilege of looking from both vantages having been president of the
National Academy and also editor of a journal. And so your interpretation of what really is
legitimate science as we know it in 2009 is very important.

Bruce Alberts: Yes. So when the academy does something like answer the 14 questions that the White
House gave us for Bush about climate change, we set up the committee that has the broadest range of
scientifically valid views on it, and we get in that case a consensus report. But this is a
critical issue for every nation. I think one of my missions at the Academy and still I think a
critical mission for me at Science magazine, is try to help build up science everywhere. Because if
you're sitting in some African country, you want to know what your scientists say about this.
You're going to be pretty distrustful of Americans or Chinese or somebody coming in and telling you
what the science says. And it's a strong argument for having a scientific capacity in every nation.

When I was first in the Academy we dealt with, for example, sad issues of people starving and yet
refusing to accept corn that had some genetic modification in it as a food stock, when in fact that
corn was safe. And what you need in those African countries that have those kinds of problems or
any country that has those kinds of problems, you need your own scientists to be able to reliably
inform the public about the consensus, and many countries don't have that. If we had much more
scientific capacity everywhere I think we'd be a more rational world.

Robyn Williams: Let me ask you about astrophysics and the future. At the moment physics is in an
embarrassing state with all sorts of big questions unanswered, conflicts and so on. Do you see that
being resolved in the next few years?

Bruce Alberts: I'm not an expert in astrophysics but I have to be on top of what the experts
believe in order to run this magazine, and the experts who I believe in feel that the next five
years are going to be a terrific time for astrophysics. There are new machines, not only the
collider but observing instruments in space that hopefully, people think will give us a handle on
what dark energy and dark matter are. 95% of the mass energy in the universe is not known, so this
is a great challenge for science. I think it's really intriguing to the general public as well to
think that science has been able to discover that 95% of what's out there in our universe is
something other than what we're familiar with.

I'm very interested in different kinds of science education that would allow kids not just to
memorise what scientists have discovered, do much less of that, but also reach out and deal with
some of the mysteries that we don't understand and get them excited about exploring the world and
giving them some experience of exploring the world themselves. So that's another place where I
think Science magazine can have a substantial effect.

Robyn Williams: How would that work, if you've got such an august science journal with technical
papers as well as high powered policy at the front, how would young people get something out of
that unless they're really, really clever?

Bruce Alberts: This is what we're struggling with right now. I'm a firm believer that if you're
going to try to do something like this you have to have people who are actually dealing with young
people design the experiment. First of all, as a scientist, every organisation I've ever been
responsible for, I believe in doing experiments, and some will not work and some will. So we're
about to do an experiment, and we have a team of teachers, both at the high school level and the
college level, who've actually been using Science magazine in their own way for their classrooms,
and we're trying to work with them to prepare very selective things from Science. Not everything is
appropriate.

So they'd have the scientific paper of the news focus article, but in addition to that they'd have
some kind of helpful background material that would enable them to come to grips with some of the
technical issues, but even more importantly, some challenges for them to try to meet in dealing
with this kind of material by giving them something where they have to do some inquiry of their own
using the web and other resources. This is the way you get kids excited about science and realising
what science is. In the Unites States we've completely bored our kids with facts...they call them
factoids...this is a joke. And what results is what I call learning science is learning key terms
as a vocabulary.

Some kids in San Francisco, including my granddaughter, the homework is writing down a bunch of
science words and writing the definition. They've got 50 of these things to do every night, and who
likes that? It's not science, and it actually turns everybody off of science. So I think we need a
completely different redefinition of what we mean by science education. In this belief I'm in good
company because the National Academy of Sciences did a major report called Taking Science to School
in 2007 which basically says the same thing.

Robyn Williams: Well, of course the National Academy of Science in Australia has got a similar kind
of program called Primary Pursuits which has been tremendously successful. Final question about, of
course, the new government, it's been there since January 20th and you've got your senior science
advisors in place; how do you assess the new regime?

Bruce Alberts: All scientists are very pleased about the attitude toward science as well as the
quality of the people that have been appointed to important scientific positions. People like Steve
Chu you would never have thought of as being in the Cabinet. He's a fantastic scientist and a
fantastic manager at Lawrence Berkeley Lab.

Robyn Williams: And Nobel Prize-winner as well.

Bruce Alberts: Yes, a Nobel Prize-winner of course. And we need scientists to support all these
people because this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see if scientists could actually be good
or I would say excellent administrators. And Washington is enormously complicated and difficult and
these are very well-meaning and skilful people but I think they're going to need a lot of support
from all of us to make this complicated task work.

Robyn Williams: Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of the journal Science and former president of the
National Academy in the USA. I talked to him at the Darwin Festival in Cambridge.