SciTech

Pittsburgh is pilot city for science ambassador program

Materials science and engineering professor Robert Davis was selected as an ambassador in the upcoming Science & Engineering Ambassador Program, a program aiming to better connect scientists and engineers to the public. (credit: Jonathan Carreon/Photo Editor) Materials science and engineering professor Robert Davis was selected as an ambassador in the upcoming Science & Engineering Ambassador Program, a program aiming to better connect scientists and engineers to the public. (credit: Jonathan Carreon/Photo Editor)

A 2006 study by the National Science Board found that “most Americans do not understand the scientific process and therefore may lack a valuable tool for assessing the validity of various claims they encounter in daily life.” With this as motivation, Pittsburgh will serve as the pilot city this fall for the Science & Engineering Ambassador Program, which aims to better connect scientists and engineers to the local community.

Implemented by the National Academy of Science and National Academy of Engineering, the program consists of a team of science and engineering ambassadors who will work “to improve the public understanding of and engagement with energy-related issues,” according to the program’s website.

The initial set of ambassadors has already been selected and is comprised of local scientists and engineers with areas of expertise related to the energy industry. These ambassadors come from both industry and nonprofit organizations, and include professors from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon. In fact, four of the nine appointed ambassadors are affiliated with Carnegie Mellon; this group includes engineering and public policy professors Jay Apt and Edward Rubin, chemical engineering professor Neil Donahue, and materials science and engineering professor Robert Davis.

“People are disconnected, from an engineering perspective, from the very things that they hold dear,” Davis said. Davis acknowledged that there are existing challenges to connecting people with science, and in identifying problems such as lack of access, knowledge, and interest in understanding the science and technology that drives society today.

The program website explains that one of the reasons Pittsburgh was selected as a pilot city is due to the diversity of individuals and groups who are interested in the matter of energy. At least five different energy sectors — including coal, gas, nuclear, solar, and wind — are represented in the region. The area also boasts a wealth of natural resources that continues to draw the interest of investors and researchers alike.

In addition to the considerable industry presence in the area, Pittsburgh is also home to universities with a number of researchers focusing their efforts on energy issues. It is this combination of relevant industrial and academic presence that has made Pittsburgh a top contender for the program.

Davis likened the structure and goals of the ambassador program to a scientific experiment: The program will test whether increasing the visibility and availability of science and engineering experts will increase public engagement with scientific issues.

To bridge the gap, the program will provide training for the ambassadors in audio and visual communication with the intention of linking them with local professionals such as teachers, business leaders, or members of the media.

Because the program is still in its infancy, there are still many unknowns about how to stimulate public interest and concern with issues of science, but Davis offered this thought: “We’ll learn by doing. We’ll learn by trying, [to see] what — if anything — works. But not trying is even worse.”