ABOVE: © ISTOCK.COM, corradobarattaphotos

The American Association for the Advancement of Science has confirmed that it has closed its Center for Public Engagement with Science & Technology as part of the final stages of an ongoing strategic planning process. For nearly two decades, the center offered the scientific community programs geared toward increasing the public’s awareness of and trust in science and the process of conducting research. 

“We are committed to building trust between scientists, engineers and broader communities across the nation. As we take our first steps toward acting on this commitment, we have made the decision to close the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science & Technology as a standalone center and re-entrench its functions within AAAS programs to expand their impact,” AAAS says in a statement emailed to The Scientist by spokesperson Tal Woliner, who adds that the organization will be announcing its new strategic vision in the near future. 

Liz Crocker, who managed several of the center’s programs before she resigned from AAAS earlier this year, writes in an email that the center was unique because it connected science societies and universities that often lack public engagement programs to museums, science educators, and naturalists who excel at public engagement but who don’t have institutional support or the ability to scale up their practices.   

“I was saddened to learn that the AAAS Center for Public Engagement has closed,” Crocker, now at the American Geophysical Union, wrote in a social media post last month. “Since launching in 2004, the center trained over 16,000+ scientists, created amazing toolkits and resources, and built a community dedicated to inclusion, diversity, equity, and justice.” Crocker tells The Scientist that she resigned in April after seeing “the writing on the wall” that the center would close, noting what seemed like a lack of investment in new or ongoing public engagement programs. For example, she says that Family Science Days, which offered free, hands-on science activities during AAAS’s annual meeting, went on indefinite hiatus despite having funding. 

“Public engagement isn’t just a nice to have—it’s absolutely necessary,” Crocker says, pointing to the COVID-19 pandemic as evidence the public doesn’t always trust research-based recommendations such as wearing masks or getting vaccinated. “Simply telling people facts is not enough no matter how clearly or prettily you say them. You have to use that to have bidirectional meaningful and respectful interactions with people.” 

Public engagement isn’t just a nice to have—it’s absolutely necessary.

—Liz Crocker, former AAAS staff member

In a statement posted on its website, AAAS says it will integrate some of the center’s programs into other areas of the organization. Specifically, it will preserve climate communication resources, continue to train science journalists in both its Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellowship and Diverse Voices in Science Journalism Internship, and maintain awards for scientists who excel in public engagement.  

In 2019, Adrienne Starks, founder of the science-education nonprofit STREAM Innovations, became one of over 100 AAAS IF/THEN ambassadors, women in STEM selected jointly by AAAS and Lyda Hill Philanthropies to serve as role models for middle school girls. The platform that AAAS provided, she says, shined a “spotlight on African American women in STEM, Hispanic women in STEM, [and] Asian women in STEM,” and highlighted “the importance of middle school girls being women in STEM and understanding that ‘if you can see it, you can be it.’” The program could suffer without AAAS staff support, Starks says, considering the public engagement expertise they provided. 

While the organization’s statement remains silent on the fate of the IF/THEN program and several others, Julia MacKenzie, AAAS’s Chief Program Officer, tells The Scientist that AAAS will continue collaborating with Lyda Hill Philanthropies, the sole funder of the IF/THEN ambassador program. The nonprofit confirms the continued collaboration in an email to The Scientist. MacKenzie says it’s too soon to announce specifics, but that more details will be provided around September 1.  

AAAS’s communicating science workshops will move under the organization’s membership office, where MacKenzie says the training offered will better focus on practicing scientists and engineers. However, the Leshner Leadership Institute, which trains mid-career scientists on how to engage with the public about their research, is ending, she says, adding that some of its components will live on in other areas. 

Nicholas Mattei, an alumnus of the Leshner Leadership Institute, says that his fellowship provided him with skills to work with local nonprofits to develop data science classes that helped students design and execute their own projects. Mattei says that losing the center as a focal point for public engagement could dilute AAAS’s impact in encouraging academic institutions to value researchers who interact with the public. If that happens, “what do we revert to?” he asks. “The academic bean counting where [if] you get X dollars in grants and Y publications, you get tenure? What about folks that want to do public engagement?”  

MacKenzie says that the Committee on Science & Technology Engagement with the Public, composed of outside experts who advise the organization on its public engagement objectives, will move under the Inclusive STEMM Ecosystems for Equity & Diversity program, which she say will better facilitate the committee’s increasing focus on aspects of diversity, equity, and inclusion that are relevant to public engagement. Liz Neeley, the founder of the science communications consulting company Liminal Creations and chair of the committee, writes in an email that committee members haven’t yet been told much about the center’s closure, but they are scheduled to receive more details during a September 9 conference. She adds, “I am so grateful to the staff of the former Center for Public Engagement that have been let go, and hope these changes are ultimately in the best interest of the AAAS community and the publics we hope to serve.” 

A AAAS spokesperson says that three people were let go as a result of the closure. MacKenzie adds that the organization may later add staff to support a slight expansion of the mass media fellowship, which will be managed alongside AAAS’s Science & Technology Policy fellowships. Closing the center is intended to gear AAAS public engagement programs toward more targeted audiences rather than trying to broadly apply them to a single public because “there are many publics,” she says. “We want to focus . . . on specific audiences and, in that sense, make sure that we are deepening our impact.”

Correction (August 26): We have corrected a reference to AAAS’s strategic vision announcement; according to an organization spokesperson, details about the IF/THEN program’s future will be released separately from the strategic vision announcement, not in that announcement. The Scientist regrets the error.