You are here

NCSE: A Decade in Retrospect

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
NCSE: A Decade in Retrospect
Eugenie C. Scott
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
The year 2007 marks the tenth anniversary of the first publication of Reports of the NCSE, or RNCSE. In looking back over the last ten years, it is clear that these have been extraordinarily full years for NCSE as an organization. Our staff has grown from two full-time and two part-time staff members to the current roster of ten full-time and four part-time employees. Our annual budget has grown from $250 000 to about $800 000. In 1997 we had one and a half very overworked "program" people trying to monitor the creationism/ evolution controversy, provide information to the public and the press, and convey information to people at the grassroots trying to cope with local and state creationist challenges to evolution education. Much of the time our activities required triage: with such a small staff, we had to choose which "flare-ups" we could spend time on; we were often frustrated that there were simply not enough hours in the day to provide sufficient assistance to some of our callers.

Because we now have more staff, we have much less anguish over triage. Moreover, as NCSE staff increased, staff has become much more diversified. Scientists still comprise the backbone of NCSE's program staff, but we now also have a philosopher of science, a historian of science, a theologian, and a former classroom teacher - all areas of relevance to our organizational mission. Our program staff is also highly qualified, holding among them five PhDs (two in anthropology, two in biology, and one in theology), and five master's degrees (one each in archaeology, education, geography, library science, and philosophy). Thus we have a wide range of expertise to draw from when requests for information arrive; as has always been the case, our staff makes NCSE the effective organization it is.

Yes, we have grown, but we needed to: the creationism/evolution controversy has become more complicated since 1997. It was during the mid- to late-1990s that "intelligent design" creationism truly hit its stride, although of course NCSE had been monitoring it for the previous decade. In 1996, Michael Behe published Darwin's Black Box, and in 1998, William Dembski published The Design Inference. Most importantly, in 1996, the Discovery Institute announced the opening of its ID-promoting center, the Center for Renewal of Science and Culture (later renamed the Center for Science and Culture). As the Discovery Institute became more active in the late 1990s, NCSE's workload increased. I and other staff published analyses of "intelligent design" arguments, and we began advising on local controversies where school boards or citizens were seeking to have "intelligent design" taught in public schools. At the same time, of course, the traditional young-earth creationists did not go away, but in fact expanded, as Answers in Genesis opened its national headquarters in northern Kentucky and even "Dr Dino" - the notorious Kent Hovind of Pensacola, Florida - expanded his popular creation science ministry.

NCSE participated in all of the large (and a lot of the small) creationism/evolution conflicts of the decade: the 1996–97 struggle in Kentucky to keep Answers in Genesis from building its creation museum next to Big Bone Lick State Park; the so-called Santorum amendment and its fallout; textbook adoptions in Texas in 2003 - the list goes on and on. Some of them, like the struggle in Darby, Montana, to keep "intelligent design" out of the science class, or the Kansas "Evolution Wars I" and "Evolution Wars II", made the national papers; most of the controversies received local coverage at best and were well off the radar of the national press. You never heard of many other controversies we monitored and helped to resolve - because these were solved behind the scenes with little publicity, sometimes not even local newspaper coverage.

Much of NCSE's time in the last decade was spent coping with creationist pressure on state science education standards. The science education standards movement, begun in the early 1990s, has had a revolutionary effect on the science curriculum in the United States. Whereas previously each individual school district was largely in charge of its own science curriculum, now statewide standards shape instruction in all districts. The National Science Education Standards (NSES), produced by the National Academy of Sciences, although only advisory, has had a huge influence on the writing of science standards in the individual states. Because the NSES included evolution, and because in most states the standards were written by education professionals, evolution was included in the standards of almost all the states - at least in the first drafts.

Evolution did not always stay in later drafts, however, because creationists protested its inclusion, and political pressure on education is a fact of life in the US. It is a tribute to NCSE and its allies on the state and local level that creationists rarely succeeded in compromising science standards. Conflicts arose in almost every state, the noisiest ones being Kansas, Ohio, and Alabama. But NCSE members and other citizens also worked to keep creationism out of, and evolution in, the standards in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia - it is hard to remember them all.

The No Child Left Behind Act, the federal education bill signed into law in 2002, requires states to test students at regular intervals, with tests based upon the state's science standards. If evolution is in the standards, it will be on the test; if it is going to be on the tests, it will be taught. After 2002, pressure on standards developers increased even more as creationists lobbied them either to omit evolution or to include some form of creationism. When scientists and others, assisted by NCSE, fought these efforts, the creationists' fallback position was usually to opt for watering down the teaching of evolution by presenting it as something that needed to be "critically examined" - creationist-speak for "criticize". This strategy was apparent in both Kansas and Ohio, and in several other places that did not receive as much national publicity. As long as high-stakes testing is the norm in science education, we can anticipate fights over evolution in states' science education standards.

During the decade, NCSE participated as advisors in the legal challenges to the teaching of evolution, including Freiler v Tangipahoa, LeVake v Independent School District 656, Selman v Cobb County, and Kitzmiller v Dover. It was for the Freiler case, in fact, that NCSE wrote its first amicus curiae brief; we have written (and ghost-written) several more since. But even though our assistance is frequently sought by legal teams defending evolution education, for NCSE legal redress is always the absolutely last recourse and to be avoided if at all possible. Lawsuits are expensive, exhausting, time-consuming, and distracting, and they tend to be very disruptive of small communities. Our first goal is to try to solve problems behind the scenes, when people are more likely to compromise. But sometimes a school board or other decision-maker is simply recalcitrant - the Dover school board comes to mind - and there is no recourse but to sue. Our side has prevailed in all cases, but the courtroom is always the last resort.

NCSE staff is proud to have promoted evolution education by assisting a dozen or more scientific or education associations write statements on the teaching of evolution - and the number of entries in our Voices for Evolution compilation almost doubled in the decade. We also assisted in 1998 and 1999 in the writing of the National Academy of Sciences's Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science and the second edition of Science and Creationism. We also advised on the NOVA Evolution series of television programs, as well as other documentaries produced during the period.

An innovation for us during this decade was NCSE's first member excursion: a trip to the Galápagos Islands in 1998. This was followed by our first Grand Canyon excursion in 1999, led by NCSE's great good friend Wilfred Elders. We have had other Grand Canyon trips in 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, and 2007, using NCSE's own "Gish" - geologist Alan Gishlick, NCSE's first postdoctoral scholar. These adventures have proven to be very popular with members, and we will try to go every year to the Grand Canyon as long as interest exists. (The 2008 trip will be from July 30 to August 6 - mark your calendars!)

NCSE has grown in number of staff, budget, and impact. We take pride that we are sought for the "evolution side" of the argument by a variety of media; we take even more pride that we are the "first stop" for members of the public trying to cope with the creationism/evolution issue on the community or state level. We would not be able to do this without our members, and we hope that you are proud that your support has produced an effective organization that has truly made a difference for the integrity of science education over the last ten years. And NCSE promises to continue to do so for the foreseeable future - with your continuing support.

About the Author(s): 

Eugenie C Scott
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477