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NCSE's Scott receives Public Welfare Medal

NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott received the Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences in a ceremony on April 25, 2010, in Washington DC. According to a January 11, 2010, press release, "the medal is presented annually to honor extraordinary use of science for the public good"; Scott was chosen "for championing the teaching of evolution in the United States and for providing leadership to the National Center for Science Education."

Accepting the medal, Scott said, "That an organization comprised of the finest scientists in the nation would bestow this award on a small, underfunded, understaffed, nonprofit laboring to defend the teaching of evolution is both humbling and inspiring. On behalf of all the people who have worked at NCSE over the last 22 years to make it an effective organization, I thank you from the bottom of my heart." (A transcript of her remarks follows.)

Previous recipients include Neal Lane, Norman Borlaug, Maxine F. Singer, C. Everett Koop, and Carl Sagan. The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit institution that was established under a congressional charter signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. It recognizes achievement in science by election to membership, and provides science, technology, and health policy advice to the federal government and other organizations.


Address to the National Academy of Sciences

Eugenie C. Scott

The Public Welfare Medal is awarded for "distinguished contributions in the application of science to the public welfare." My predecessor recipients have done so in impressive ways — in politics, education, agriculture, public health, medicine — so many fields of endeavor.

For me to follow in their footsteps is nothing short of astonishing. That an organization comprised of the finest scientists in the nation would bestow this award on a small, underfunded, understaffed, nonprofit laboring to defend the teaching of evolution is both humbling and inspiring. On behalf of all the people who have worked at NCSE over the last 22 years to make it an effective organization, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Life at NCSE is rather different from what most scientists do for a living, so I should tell you a bit more about us. The elevator speech version of NCSE is that we are the people who hand out the fire extinguishers to put out the brushfires set by those who oppose the teaching of evolution. We are a clearinghouse of information and advice for those at the grassroots who are defending the teaching of modern science in their communities or states.

We teach them how to fish, if you don't mind my mixing up the fireman metaphor. Of course this involves scientific information: creationists make statements about science that need correcting, and evolution needs to be presented as we scientists understand it.

But the creationism and evolution controversy also is about religion, and education, and the law, and ultimately, politics. Science is necessary but not sufficient to solve these problems. At NCSE we cultivate an integrated approach, working with not only scientists, but also teachers, attorneys, clergy, parents and other voters, and elected officials to try to keep good science in the classroom.

NCSE’s grassroots orientation began at its inception in 1981. The Academy, concerned about legislation promoting equal time for creation science, convened an ad hoc committee on creationism, to which I was invited. At the time I was teaching physical anthropology at the University of Kentucky, and we had just had a prolonged struggle at the local school board level combating a proposal by the "Citizens for Balanced Teaching of Origins" to teach the "cutting-edge new science" of creation science. (Footnote: if you read "balanced" and "origins" in the same paragraph, you have a 90% probability that you are reading a creationist tract.) It was during this controversy that I learned that these sorts of problems are not solved by scientists alone, but by a coalition of scientists, teachers, clergy, parents, and businesspeople, each of whom have overlapping stakes in good science being taught in our schools.

At the Academy's ad hoc committee meeting, I and some others with grassroots experience contended that scientists were needed at the local level, but (in 1981) the Academy, AAAS, AIBS, NSTA, and other scientific and educational associations had no efficient way to turn out their members in, say, Omaha, to testify at a school board meeting or a committee hearing. Local problems require local solutions, and what eventually evolved was a grassroots-oriented group of scientists and teachers, the NCSE, to complement the national efforts of the associations. It was after this conference that the Academy composed and distributed its extremely valuable and important Science and Creationism, and of course there are people here today who made that happen, and/or who worked on the two subsequent editions. Then as now, the Academy has taken a leadership position to inform the public about the importance of evolution in the sciences.

Contrasting with 1981, after the advent of digital communications, now scientific and educational associations can indeed correspond efficiently with their members, and provide them with information about attacks on evolution (or other antiscience actions). Wisely, they have not replicated NCSE, but instead, many associations have formed partnerships with us. Because we monitor science education issues in legislatures and schools around the country, when problems arise, we are able to provide the associations with the what, where, who, and what to do about it, and the associations pass down this information to their members in those communities or states.

It works. The association top-down/NCSE grassroots combination quickly informs scientists of what they need to know and do, and scientists have heeded the call, supporting science at the local level. We also have coordinated amicus briefs signed by associations, which have been powerful statements of the unity of scientists regarding evolution education.

The Academy has long been a leader among associations, taking seriously these threats to science, and being the Academy, has a bully pulpit, indeed. I thank the members of the Academy for stepping up to the plate on so many occasions to support evolution education, and look forward to the day when — we can all hope — the public has a better grasp of why our students should be taught 21st-century science.

Thank you for that, and for this truly incredible award.