Eugenie Scott has spent 26 years helping teachers do what's right for their students in the name of science. And while the need to defend the teaching of evolution and climate change certainly hasn't disappeared, Scott announced today that she is stepping down later this year as the founding CEO and "the public face" of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE).
"I think all nonprofits hope someday to put themselves out of business," says Scott, now 67. "But I guess I found a sinecure," she adds with a laugh.
Her leadership skills will be sorely missed, says Kenneth Miller, a biology professor at Brown University. "She's incomparable, irreplaceable, and indispensable," says Miller, who was a key figure in one of the center's most decisive victories, a 2005 court case that blunted an attack on evolution by the Dover, Pennsylvania, school district. Scott was masterful at building the coalition needed to win the case, he adds.
Sean Carroll, vice president for science education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland, calls Scott "a national hero of science education. The entire scientific community, legions of teachers, and millions of students owe her a great debt for her dedication and passionate advocacy. She has established a remarkable legacy at NCSE."
Trained as a physical anthropologist, Scott was on the faculty of the University of Kentucky in 1980 when she and other educators opposed attempts to teach creationism in the local schools. NCSE was the product of a national grassroots network that had sprung up to battle similar attempts across the country during that era, and Scott joined the fledgling organization in 1987.
Based in Oakland, California, NCSE has grown into a 15-person, $1.2 million a year operation that monitors legislation at all levels and provides advice and resources to educators. A prolific writer, organizer, and strategist, Scott says that her successor will inherit "a more mature organization moving in exciting new directions." In recent years, NCSE has expanded efforts to defend teachers and school districts from attacks by climate change deniers that employ tactics very similar to those used by opponents of evolution.
"We've learned from Day 1 that you don't blunt those attacks by simply shoveling science onto the debate," she says. "You need to recognize the political and economic and cultural issues in play. In the end, it comes down to your powers of persuasion."
NCSE has been able to build new partnerships in its efforts to defend the teaching of climate change, she notes, including links to evangelical Christian groups that might not agree with what NCSE does on behalf of evolution. "We are used to working with groups that support some but not all of our goals," she says. "We are not antireligion."
The proposed Next Generation Science Standards—a set of voluntary teaching standards being developed by a coalition of states—offer strong support for teaching both evolution and climate change, she says. But that is also likely to mean more pushback from groups opposed to those subjects in the states that eventually adopt the standards. "So we anticipate that teachers will be looking for help," Scott says. "And it will be up to NCSE and others to figure out ways to help them do what they are supposed to do."
Miller, a former member of NCSE's board, says that Scott's greatest strength has been her ability "to bring people together around the goal of defending the integrity of science education." NCSE is now hunting for her successor, and Miller says that person will need both her "passion for the cause" and her ability "to herd cats."