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A Q&A with Bassam Shakhashiri

August 17, 2021 By Terry Devitt

University of Wisconsin—Madison chemistry professor Bassam Shakhashiri sat down recently to reflect on his more than 50 years as a science educator, as he faces retirement.

Q: You are passionate about sharing science with students and the public. What sparked that passion and when did you decide science, and chemistry education in particular, was your calling?

A: In my general chemistry courses I wanted students to both learn course content and to connect science to societal progress and problems. I realized that technical training is crucial, but that my role extends to educating students and others to be responsible in their behavior to protect the environment and to always work for the common good. I was influenced in particular by Rachel Carson, Gaylord Nelson, and my father, who was a public health physician. My mother’s community work in Lebanon and in the US was a great influence.

Q: Getting scientists and researchers to better engage with students and the public can be a heavy lift. Is the glaring need for more robust science literacy getting scientists motivated to address the challenge?

A: Science and society have what is essentially a social contract that enables great intellectual achievements but comes with mutual expectations of benefiting the human condition and protecting our planet. The grand challenges facing society require technical solutions and public participation. Faculty are more than classroom teachers, researchers and technical trainers. We all do what we do because it interests us, it satisfies our curiosity, we enjoy it. However, we have a responsibility to humanity as a whole. We excel in research and in the classroom, but we must enhance our public engagement efforts to influence societal attitudes and behavior. In a free and civil society people must be virtuous as well as technically skilled.

Q: Given events of the past year, what are your thoughts on the current state of public science literacy? Are there things to be hopeful about science and its relationship to society?

A: Science literacy is an attitude. Relationships are complex and with advances in science the need for connecting science to society requires more care, respect, and trust. I remain confident that scientists will devote a portion of their intellect to effectively connecting with non-scientists.

Q: When you were at the National Science Foundation, there was tension between the education and the research communities when it came to funding. Have we gotten past that?

A: I and others say there is one community committed to advancing knowledge and to serving society. Bureaucratic squabbles can deter progress, but visionary programs for the common good (usually) prevail.

Q: Looking back on 50-plus years of public service in science education, what have been the most memorable and rewarding aspects of your professional life?

A: I am fortunate to have seen smiles and heard voices from so many around the world. Reaching kids of all ages through the Christmas Lecture is deeply meaningful. My work in Washington was made unnecessarily difficult by shortsightedness, but I am pleased and satisfied that I affected the lives of researchers and the general public. My Wisconsin tenured appointment made it all possible.