SciComm in History: Science Service (now the Society for Science)

By Sheeva Azma

In the COVID-19 pandemic, journalists and scientists worked together to expedite the release of information, often very technical science information, for the general public. For more about that, you can check out this article at the Open Notebook. However, the pandemic was not the first time that journalists and scientists worked hand-in-hand. In fact, one of the most famous collaborations between science research and journalism goes back to 1903. That’s when Edward Willis “E.W.” Scripps, a journalist and newspaper magnate, met William Emerson Ritter, a zoologist. Scripps bankrolled Ritter’s research laboratory in San Diego, which later became the Scripps Research Institute. They believed that a healthy democracy required widespread public understanding of science, which is why they founded Science Service.

E.W. Scripps and William Emerson Ritter believed that a healthy democracy required widespread public understanding of science. That’s why they founded Science Service.

The Science Service is today known as the Society for Science. It is a nonprofit organization producing science education programs and publications, including the Regeneron Talent Search; the BroadCom MASTERS (Math, Applied Science, Technology, and Engineering for Rising Stars) competition; and public-facing science writing. Their flagship publication is now called Science News, which they publish alongside Science News for Students and Science News in High Schools.

Keep reading to learn more about Science Service, its history in science communication and science education, and its efforts to come to terms with its founding staff’s discriminatory, pseudoscience views.

The Origins of Science Service and A Moral Reckoning

Scripps was concerned about the lack of science literacy in the population. He wanted to develop a news service that could distribute scientific information from science labs to journalists. Scripps and Ritter worked with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS); the National Academy of Sciences (NAS); and the National Research Council (NRC) (today, the operations arm of the National Academies, which includes the NAS) to make their dream a reality. According to the Science Service album description on Flickr, the three organizations had been working on a format for a science journal accessible to an everyday audience even before Scripps came along. In 1920, Scripps met with the AAS, NAS, and NRC to see if they could work together to produce a science publication for a general audience. Together, they came up with the idea for Science Service, which they launched together a year later, in 2021.

In 1971, Science Service celebrated its 50th anniversary. By then, it had expanded its science news coverage, encouraged thousands of young people to participate in science competitions, and had also helped professional scientists to communicate research internationally. However, for about four decades between the 1920s and 1960s, it had also published articles supporting many different kinds of discrimination, due to the pro-eugenics views held by two of its founding journalists: Edwin Slosson, the founding editor, and Watson Davis, Science Service’s first principal writer. Eugenics is a type of fake science or pseudoscience which gained popularity in the early 1900s. Proponents of eugenics believed that they could eliminate social problems and perfect human beings using genetics and heredity and by selective breeding of humans. Eugenics was used to justify racial, ethnic, and other forms of discrimination.

As Science Service’s first editor, Edwin Slosson published articles in support of eugenics. Slosson served as editor until his death in 1929. Upon Slosson’s death, Davis, who also served on the board of the American Eugenics Society, became Science Service’s Director, where he served until 1966. Serving in an editorial role, Slosson and Davis published discriminatory articles which today’s Science for Society staff have called “unscientific and morally wrong.” 

Davis established the student science competitions that remain a cornerstone of the organization’s public service mission today. In 1942, Science Service launched the prestigious science competition, the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, which was briefly known as the Intel Talent Search, and today is known as the Regeneron Talent Search. In 1962, the Science Service received a Congressional Charter, or a law passed by Congress to recognize the organization’s public service mission of promoting science education.

Despite his fervent advocacy of science education, Davis’s views on eugenics negatively affected Science Service’s many public service initiatives for young science fans. A study of Westinghouse Talent Search winners shows that meritocracy was lacking. The study examined the first two decades of the program’s existence (1942-1958), when Davis was in charge of Science Service. The researchers found that most winners were white males who were from large, well-off urban schools. Women, African American, and rural students, as well as other students with relatively few resources, were underrepresented. The study concludes that “this national competition reflected social and cultural forces that shaped the science professions in a crucial period of their growth, and may have represented a lost opportunity to make scientific training truly meritocratic at a formative time in its development.”

After World War II, Davis had “become an autocratic leader, the undisputed embodiment of Science Service,” the World Biographical Encyclopedia writes. He took on most of the responsibilities, paid staffers low wages, and “granted vacations only grudgingly.” As a result, Science Service lost prominence as staff quit and the organization began to experience financial problems. Science Service “did not play a major role in the booming response to the postwar demand for popular science,” according to the World Biographical Encyclopedia. The organization continued to languish as Davis refused to retire. In 1966, Davis was forced out of Science Service.

In 2021, Science Service, now known as the Society for Science, celebrated its 100th anniversary. In March 2022, the organization apologized for the racist, sexist, and homophobic articles it published from the 1920s to the 1960s. “We believe doing better in the future requires an honest and transparent examination of our past,” the Science News Reckoning Team wrote: “…we hope reckoning with our past, being transparent about what was terrible alongside what was great, will help us hold ourselves accountable today.”

The Science News-Letter (1922-1966)

Science Service’s primary goal, as envisioned by Scripps and Ritter, was to make science popular and inform the general public about science. Originally, the Science Service sought to distribute the latest science research and happenings to journalists in a publication called the Science News-Letter. Davis served as the publication’s inaugural editor, and was promoted to Director of Science Service in 1922. That same year, Science Service expanded to non-journalists with the addition of a science newsletter which launched as a magazine in 1926. You can view the Science News-Letter archives at JSTOR. The Science News-Letter rebranded as Science News in 1966.

Science Service primarily sought to advance its science communication goals via print journalism and the Science News-Letter, but also worked with different formats including “radio, lectures, and emerging mediums.” Science Service’s radio broadcast, “Adventures in Science,” featured interviews with scientists and engineers in which Davis would ask them about their cutting-edge research. Nobel Prize winning scientists such as Enrico Fermi, Marie and Pierre Curie, and others appear in Smithonian’s Science Service photo archives. According to the Society for Science centennial website, “Science Service covered Einstein’s work closely, and staff occasionally corresponded directly with him in the course of their work.”

photo of physicists at the 1933 solvay conference
From the Science Service archives: A photo of physicists, mostly from the field of atomic physics, attending the famous Solvay conference in 1933. In attendance are Marie Curie (bottom right), her daughter Irène (bottom left), and Irene’s husband, Frédéric (upper left). Image Credit: Smithsonian Institution Science Service Archives.

Here’s the caption provided by the Smithsonian which lists everyone in this photo:

“In the front row are Irene Curie, Niels Henrik David Bohr (1885-1962), Abram Fedorovich Ioffe (1880-1960), and Marie Curie; in the back row (from left) are Joliot, Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976), Hendrik Anthony Kramers (1894-1952), Ernst Stahel (b. 1896), Enrico Fermi (1901-1954), Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton (1903-1995), Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac (1902-1984), Peter Joseph William Debye (1884-1966), Nevill Francis Mott (1905-1996), and Blas Cabrera y Felipe (1878-1945). The black crop lines visible around Fermi’s head were made by a Science Service editor.”

In 1966, as the organization rebuilt itself after Davis’s departure, Science News-Letter was renamed Science News.

The Launch of Science News and A New Era in Science Advocacy

In 1966, E.G. Sherburne, Jr. became president of Science Service. He had previously been director of AAAS and was dedicated to boosting public involvement in science. Over the course of Sherburne’s tenure at Science Service, Science News doubled its readership, with nearly 230,000 subscribers by the time he retired.

In 1976, Sherburne gave a speech to the National Society for Medical Research titled “The Importance of Communicating Science to the Public.” You can read the full text of the speech here. In his speech, he talked about the importance of science communication. 

“There are a variety of reasons why it is important to communicate science to the public, but as one goes through them, there is a recurring theme which seems to me to stand out more than all the rest. This concerns the need for a scientifically literate citizenry that can participate intelligently in the democratic decision-making process.”

– E.G. Sherburne, former president of Science Service, in a 1976 speech

Sherburne didn’t envision everyday people replacing policymakers or scientists. He simply believed that empowering people with an understanding of science would help them live better lives and surmount national challenges.

In the ensuing years, Science Service has worked to stay true to its original mission of amplifying science and making it accessible to everyone. In 1998, Donald Harless, who had spent 27 years overseeing and directing the Westinghouse Science Competition, became the next Science Service president. In 2000, Science Service won the National Science Board’s Public Service Award. In 2001, the flagship publication, Science News, covered the first map of the human genome.

In 2008, Science Service changed its name to Society for Science and the Public. In 2019, the organization established the Honorary Board, a group of highly accomplished scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs who provide strategic guidance for the organization.

Since 2021, Science Service is called Science for Society. Though it has a new name, the organization continues to advance its mission of popularizing science and helping improve science literacy via its publications and science education initiatives.

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