St Louis gained huge brownie points last night for providing a great night of R&B after our Brazilian dinner organised by Rob Fruend, one of the 2008 US Fellows. This morning we started with breakfast from another 2008 US Fellow, Rachel Storch, who is in the state legislature. She told us that there was an attempt to criminalise human embryonic stem cell research in Missouri recently. Criminalise it. Not “not allow it with federal/state funds” but put scientists in prison. I find that quite shocking. I mean, there have to be limits. But the vast majority of the people involved in this, like many of the people at Monsanto, are doing this because they believe they are doing something good. In fact, this seems to be a state with many issues bubbling beneath the surface. A little more on that later.
I spent today at the St Louis Science Centre. The morning was great, particularly the meeting with the Associate Director, Carol Valenta. It does seem that there is a change underway in the American science museum world, a recognition that they cannot rely on things that spin and flashing lights and “edutainment”. They need to focus on real science and also look to the future, not just represent the past. I found this in my meetings in Washington and North Carolina and St Louis said it too. I was interested to talk to them about the involvement of industry. The centre is a source of information for people from a source they rely on to be objective. So how can that square with being paid by comapnies? For the moment, the answer lies in the American civil society – the support for exhibits comes from companies’ philanthropic dollars, not their marketing dollars. But the former is shrinking, so what will happen then? They have also had to adapt to the fact that one-third of their visitors are not accompanied by children. Does that show a thirst among some of American society, at least, in finding out the facts behind the scientific myths?
Well, that was all fascinating enough, but then I had lunch with Diane Miller, who heads up the Taylor Centre, an outreach programme of the science centre. They work with kids from neighbourhoods dominated by ‘under-represented groups’, which translates here as African-American kids. The teenagers come to the centre on Sundays and they work on various projects – building greenhouses and growing plants for old people’s homes, working in schools, designing communal spaces in community groups to make them more open for minority groups. These are kids from areas with huge levels of drop-outs and yet there are kids there who don’t just graduate from high school but go on to college. Almost the best bit was discussing with her some of the issues relating to race relations in the US and in St Louis in particular. It’s astonishing to think that it can still be the case where people can’t buy a house or send their child to a private school because of their skin colour. But I”ve heard both of those stories today, from different people. This all links into the panel we had this afternoon on healthcare, with Rob, Rachel, Bolormaa and Sam. Because public health, primary care and particularly prevention seem to me to be part of a cycle of education and access that have a lot to do with money here. Apparently in poor (i.e black) areas of St Louis there are no proper supermarkets. Couple that with a lack of public transportation and of course families on welfare in those areas end up buying processed foods that are easy to carry and mean they don’t have to go to the supermarket reguarly. And a lack of basic scientific knowledge means that myths build up around how health issues arise that are very difficult to challenge.
Over dinner Bolormaa and I discussed some of these issues, primarily in the context of the delivery of healthcare and the idea of a social contract that prevails in our societies – there are some things that are about more than the individual, and rather about our responsibility to each other within a society. I think that’s maybe at the core of our differences. So, still learning about this place!