Thousands of scientists to descend on Boston

The nation’s largest general science society is in town this week, featuring sessions on topics as diverse as climate change and genomics, brought together under the more general theme of “The Beauty and Benefits of Science”—with a big emphasis on the benefits.

Facing a tight funding situation and the looming peril of major budget cuts to the federal agencies that fund science and medical research, scientists are trying to emphasize the importance of basic research to the economy. William H. Press, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said during a visit to the Globe Wednesday that was a message he intended to present to the scientists who attend the conference.

“How do we, as scientists, make the case that we’re geese that lay the golden eggs, and not hogs at the trough?” Press said.

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Press said he has been heartened by President Obama’s embrace of science, including his call in Tuesday’s State of the Union address to increase research and development investment to the same level as during the Space Race. Obama spoke about building more powerful batteries and climate change, but also stressed economic benefits of science. He mentioned that for every dollar invested in decoding the human genome, a $140 return on investment was made—a conclusion that has been critiqued by some economists.

Press noted that the word “science” was mentioned five times in Obama’s inaugural address; the last time it popped up in one of those speeches was when Richard Nixon was inaugurated. Press said he would like to see the United States spend 3 percent of the gross domestic product on research and development, and that it should be seen as investment, not an expenditure.

In a wide-ranging discussion, Press also said that among major research universities that face the dual challenges of doing great basic research and translating it into new technologies, there are two institutions everyone looks to emulate: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University. He called Harvard University, where he once worked as an astronomer, a great institution, but he conspicuously left it off the list.

Press also said that an important thing to remember when talking about funding basic research is that progress is unpredictable. It is often unclear at the outset which questions, projects, or research teams will have the insights that lead to new technologies or tools.

Over the weekend, the conference will feature free Family Science Days, open to the general public.