SIAM News Blog

Envisioning Tomorrow’s Earth: Reflections on the 2020 AAAS Annual Meeting

By Hans Kaper

Attendees of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting are like kids in a candy store: confronted with many choices, unexpected delights, and an ongoing tension between instant gratification and long-term perspective. I have been participating in these meetings since 2018, and I must say that I find them more fascinating with each passing year. Yes, I enjoy and would regret missing the professional meetings of SIAM, the American Geophysical Union, and other societies to which I belong. But AAAS meetings are different. They offer guests a chance to look beyond their silos and provide a unique opportunity to visualize mathematics as part of the larger scientific enterprise.

The theme of the 2020 meeting, which took place this February in Seattle, Wash., was “Envisioning Tomorrow’s Earth.” What better occasion to reflect on the ways in which science and technology respond to new challenges from both the natural and built world, and conversely, to see how the challenges of today’s “real world” can inspire novel mathematics? This theme also coincided with the objectives of the SIAM Activity Group on Mathematics of Planet Earth.

The AAAS is an umbrella organization that represents many sciences. It is historically dominated by the biological and chemical sciences, and a cursory look at Science—their flagship magazine—offers ample evidence of this dominance. Rarely does it feature an article explaining a recent result in mathematics, either core or applied. But mathematics and statistics have a seat at the table; it is simply difficult to convince the powers that be of mathematical sciences’ relevance to many discoveries in other disciplines. Yet we must keep trying, as it is better to be heard than forgotten.

Bill Gates of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation addresses the crowd during his plenary lecture at the 2020 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting, which took place this February in Seattle, Wash. Photo courtesy of Robb Cohen Photography & Video.
The 2020 AAAS Annual Meeting had two substantive scientific sessions that focused on mathematical contributions to the public good. One session, organized by Karen Saxe (American Mathematical Society), examined gerrymandering and racial fairness and featured talks by Matt Barreto (University of California, Los Angeles), Jonathan Mattingly (Duke University), and Moon Duchin (Tufts University). The other session, organized by Christiane Rousseau (University of Montreal) and Fred Roberts (Rutgers University), focused on resilience in the digital age, with talks by Amy Luers (Future Earth), Hans Kaper (Georgetown University), and Wayne Getz (University of California, Berkeley). Both sessions were well attended and boasted stimulating question-and-answer dialogues.

Not only does the AAAS Annual Meeting draw participants from academia, government, and the private sector, it also attracts communicators, the press, and numerous think tanks. In fact, the meeting’s major thrust is to expose new ideas to a broader community, inform decision-makers, and connect science and society. Not all sessions at the 2020 gathering focused on science; panels and town hall events were devoted to communication issues, workshops highlighted career opportunities, and plenary talks addressed “big picture” ideas.

Two plenary sessions were of particular interest. Bill Gates discussed science policy’s influence on public health (and vice versa), which is where the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has made significant contributions. And Krysta Svore (Microsoft Corporation) offered an insider’s view on the state of the art of quantum information science at Microsoft. In addition, multiple sessions explored Earth’s climate system and its many subsystems (ocean, atmosphere, carbon cycle, water cycle, etc.), issues of sustainability (food supply, manufacturing, etc.), extreme events, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and public health.

Most of us realize that a wide gap exists between the scientific research enterprise and the public’s appreciation of science, and recognize that it is important to make sustained efforts to bridge this gap. However, determining how to best engage the public and develop meaningful communication channels is not always clear. The social sciences indicate that “show and tell” is not going to close the gap; we need to be more discerning and tailor our message specifically to our audience. We must pay heed to examples of successful communication techniques—many of which were presented at the 2020 AAAS Annual Meeting—so our message is not ignored and lost. To that end, the AAAS has made sizeable investments in training communicators; this is a long-term effort, but the payoff could be significant.

The AAAS Annual Meeting is a great place to learn about mathematical sciences’ role in the broad panorama of physical and life sciences. The theme of next year’s meeting is “Understanding Dynamic Ecosystems.” What better opportunity to showcase the role of applied mathematics? Let’s make an effort to highlight our passion for mathematics and demonstrate how we can create a win-win situation for science and society.

Hans Kaper, founding chair of the SIAM Activity Group on Mathematics of Planet Earth and editor-in-chief of SIAM News, is affiliate faculty in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Georgetown University.

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