AAAS Annual Meeting 2021 Recap

AAAS Annual Meeting 2021 Recap

By Chris Unterberger

Though the AAAS Annual Meeting touches on many different areas of science—advancement, policy, diplomacy—the underscore of it all is communication. This year’s meeting exemplified how all branches of science are rooted in a deep need for effective messaging. The several seminar sessions that I attended were diverse in their topics, but they all found a way to connect to the communication theme.

Extraterrestrial Messaging

Space travel is the culmination of many disciplines: engineering designs the rocket and shuttle, mathematics and physics plot the route and schedule, chemistry fuels the takeoff, and biology is the end goal. “Astrobiology and Origins of Life,” discussed by Hyunju Kim, Stephanie Colon-Santos, Emily Dolson, Betul Kacar, and David Baum, connected these worlds and enticed the exploration of the origins of life. The panelists brought together diverse perspectives to solve the mysteries of where we came from and where we are going!

Beyond finding life on other planets, we also have ambitions to plant our own. In the panel “Understanding and Enabling Human Travel to the Moon and Mars,” Tom Williams, Noshir Contractor, Dorothy Carter, Leslie DeChurch, Suzanne Bell, Jack Stuster, and Nick Kanas plotted efforts to use advancing science and engineering to take humans further and further from Earth. Beyond the means of travel, scientists need to consider the physiological responses to the journey. There are differences between Earth orbit and what astronauts will experience traveling to Mars, including the stressors, duration, and lack of amenities. It’s essential to predict and mitigate any of these ill-effects. Additionally, travelers will have limited ability to communicate; delays of up to 22 minutes for a signal to travel from Mars to Earth will inhibit scientists’ ability to communicate frequently. This delay demands proper team formation, considering rank, expertise, and even the number of individuals per team.

The enormous task of communication between scientific disciplines limits our readiness to travel to alien worlds and deserted rocks many miles away.

Sustainable Statements

Sustainability works only as far as its individual components will take it. That’s why it’s important to teach everyone the importance and discipline of resource sustainability. Practical translation of sustainability is imperative to communicating science to the public. But when it comes to saving the planet, the need for effective lessons is more important. In “Strengthening Communities and Scientific Research in Adapting to Climate Change,” Louise Bedsworth, Jennifer Jurado, Zena Grecni, Sekita Grant, and John Holmes analyze climate change impacts on communities across the US. By forcing local governments, organizations, and businesses to identify worst-case scenario plans, these individuals are plotting a grassroots effort to protect the country from climate change. This effort demands downscaling climate data, bringing in diverse voices, consistent climate assessments, and drawing on social sciences to determine who is at most risk when climate change effects will threaten community lives. Ultimately, the most significant hurdle is community engagement—climate change is not the main issue for most people. This group is trying to change that.

Beyond climate change education, we need waste management. During “21st Century Alchemy: Turning Waste into Resources”, Doo Hwan Jung, DaeHoon Lee, JaeHoon Lee, Mijung Jung, and Gap Soo Chang discuss resource allocation since the industrial revolution. By focusing on new recycling technologies that combat electronic, landfill, and coal waste, these researchers hope to return ecosystems to sustainable states. These alchemists are trying to convert trash into valuable resources.

During my favorite session, Patrick O. Brown described the process of reinventing meat and reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cattle farming. Animal agriculture occupies more than 45% of Earth’s ice-free land surface, which amounts to 82% of humanity’s land footprint. To decrease our land use, Brown emphatically suggests turning to plant-based meat products. By doing so, burgers from plants would use 96% less land and 87% less water while producing 89% fewer emissions and 92% less water pollution. Plant-based meats have the potential to reverse the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Public education of climate change and ways to combat it will be a vital pillar of future annual meetings.

International Collaboration

“Borders are only things to yell results across.” Two AAAS sessions, “Evolving Policy Priorities in International Scientific Partnerships” and “The Middle East’s Scientific Ecosystem: SESAME and International Cooperation,” gave me hope that science can rise above imaginary lines. Arther Bienenstock, Peter Michelson, Shirley M. Malcom, Amanda Vernon, and Olufunmilayo Olapade mapped out increasing scientific progress amongst international partnerships. Researchers in the US are increasingly reliant on foreign institutions to solve the world’s problems. However, limitations on collaborations in other countries, visa restrictions, data storage agreements, standard operating procedure differences, and lack of funding impede international cooperation. Research funding matters and has led to some successful, collaborative policies. Other issues like climate change are dependent on the inclusion of large nations like China.

There are examples of how scientific collaboration can survive (and thrive) even in places like the conflict-ridden Middle East. Kirsi Lorentz, Gihan Kamel, Wolfgang Eberhardt, Alan Boyle, Kudakwashe Jakata, Brian Rosen, and Nazanin Samadi described collaboration within the Middle Eastern scientific community. Specifically, the SESAME synchrotron located in Jordan promotes collaboration as a region-wide electron-accelerating tool that scientists from many countries use. Regional instruments like SESAME broadens the research capacity of scientists who usually would be without such a machine. These facilities and collaborations also provide opportunities to educate younger researchers. Ultimately, regional facilities lower cultural barriers. As one panelist put it: “Meet for the machine, stay for the conversation.”


Although the titles of the seminars, workshops, and plenary sessions were different, their takeaways were all the same: science communication is necessary to advancing, translating, and collaborating. The sessions named above were only the few that I could attend, but I have no doubts that the others told a similar story. I look forward to hearing how the communication skills and opportunities presented at this Annual Meeting evolve.