Sudip Parikh calls for scientists to build bridges with the public and policymakers

CEO of AAAS says better science communication is key to dismantling distrust among some legislators and the general public in the ninth installment of JHU's Health Policy Forum series

As a child, Sudip Parikh looked back in awe at the scientific discoveries of earlier time periods.

"I used to imagine what it'd be like to have breakfast with Einstein in 1905, or Isaac Newton in the 1620s … or to live in one of those golden eras of science," he shared during the latest installment of the Johns Hopkins Health Policy Forum on July 28. "But now I realize we are living in perhaps the Golden Era of Science."

Today, Parikh is the chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the executive producer of the Science family of journals. He joined a virtual conversation with Theodore DeWeese, interim dean of the medical faculty and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine, about the future of science in the United States and the need for better communication and engagement with policymakers and the public.

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"We know more about the universe, more about the planet, and more about ourselves than ever before," said Parikh, who has served in leadership roles across the private sector and the federal government. But he said we need to do more, as a nation, to help the public and policymakers understand the exciting advancements happening—and why they matter.

"In many ways, we have a hard time communicating the beauty and wonder and utility of what we're working on, and we've got to make sure we're becoming better science communicators, not just a few people … but rather all of us as a scientific enterprise," Parikh said. Only then can "we actually heal some of this disconnect that's occurred over the past few years."

Parikh and DeWeese discussed the polarization that has occurred around science in recent years, with some groups supporting science and others distrusting it. To fix the problem, scientists and science advocates need to build bridges with their community, including its "faith leaders, journalists, and policymakers—so they can say they trust a scientist," Parikh said.

Although the United States remains a large investor in science and technology, some branches of science—particularly biomedical science and research—have become a partisan issue in recent years, Parikh said: "For the first time in my memory, there are politicians … who are using biomedical research, and the NIH in particular, as a bit of a punching bag by raising money and saying they'd like to dismantle it," Parikh said. We must do more to educate policymakers about the importance of science and research in biomedicine and other areas, he said.

More must be done, too, to address the crisis in graduate school education sweeping the nation, both Parikh and DeWeese said. Many graduate students and post-docs struggle to feel like they belong in academia, they said, and that needs to change. "Whether you were born in this country or born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or the Mississippi Delta, or Appalachia, or the Central Valley of California, you need to feel a sense of belonging in the sciences," Parikh said. "You need to feel welcome because we need your brain power to solve these problems."

Sudip Parikh is the ninth expert to participate in the Health Policy Forum series, which launched in fall 2020 to highlight the university's engagement with key leaders on matters of health policy and health care. Previous events featured Anthony Fauci, former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (October 2020); Rochelle P. Walensky, Med '95 (MD), '98 (PGF), director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the height of the COVID pandemic (May 2021); Robert M. Davis, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Merck (October 2021); Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (January 2022); Atul Gawande, assistant administrator of the Bureau for Global Health at the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID; Donna Shalala, former HHS secretary and member of Congress (June 2022); Xavier Becerra, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (December 2022); and Michelle Lujan Grisham, the 32nd governor of New Mexico and the first Democratic Hispanic woman elected governor in U.S. history (May 2023).

The Health Policy Forum series is jointly hosted by Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, Carey Business School, and School of Nursing along with Johns Hopkins Medicine.