This Saturday, April 22, thousands of people are expected to participate in the March for Science, a high-profile event to showcase support for the idea of science. Some of them will take part in the grand march in Washington, D.C. Others will march in cities across the country. Although the underlying themes that celebrate the value of science are well-intentioned, I think that the march is a bad idea. It threatens to undermine the objective nature of scientific research that is so critical to its integrity. I say this as a postdoctoral researcher who has committed the better part of the last 15 years to science. I say it as a scientist who believes that politics has no place at the lab bench.
And there’s no denying this march is political. It is a mistake to position the scientific method against the Trump administration or any other one, for that matter. That would serve only to undermine a central premise of the march: that scientific knowledge is apolitical. Organizers argue that the march is “nonpartisan.” While this may be the official line, I’m skeptical of whether anything approaching it can actually be achieved, especially on the heels of a divisive election. For example, I recently spoke with a colleague who was organizing a poster-making session for the march. She proudly described her design as an “I’m With Her” arrow pointing toward planet Earth.
I was also “with her” last November, but that should be beside the point. I fear that, contrary to its mission of inclusion, the march may actually alienate many of those it seeks to convince. Scientists are highly educated, the academic version of the 1 percent Wall Street class. They are also overwhelming Democratic. I can assure you that this has little to no impact on their science or for the potential public impact of their findings. But it would not be unreasonable for a rural blue-collar worker, watching the marches from afar, to perceive them as yet another attack from the condescending elite. We cannot drum up the broad support for science that the march seeks by aggravating a deep divide already present in this country.
I have also heard the argument that we must speak out for science because truth and science are under attack, and that everyone knows the loudest voice in the room gets the most attention. But the truth is always under attack. Two glaring examples are genetically modified food and vaccines, which scientists overwhelming agree are safe. It makes sense to speak out about such issues, but it would have made sense to do so years ago, too.
Ultimately, the problem with the March for Science is its scope. To be sure, it can be reasonable and helpful to rally for scientific funding, which is appropriated by Congress and therefore inherently political. A bright spot is that there is fairly strong bipartisan backing for funding the National Institutes of Health and other organizations that support science. Like many of those who will march, I believe in the power of objective, evidence-based scientific knowledge — knowledge that I would like to see inform public policy. But a march for the very idea of science is counterproductive, unnecessarily pushing scientific research directly into one of the most tense and polarized political climates in recent years. Rather than forcing politicians to accept science, it is entirely possible that the march will do nothing more than provide them with an escape hatch, a justification for the idea that science is in some way biased.
I won’t be marching. I’m actually scheduled to teach an undergraduate cell biology course that morning instead. The topic is stem cells, those special cells with unlimited potential to become any cell in the body. Biologists refer to these stem cells as pluripotent, unfixed in their developmental choices and poised at the edge of the known and unknown. It’s an apt metaphor for the promise and power of science itself. Perhaps it can even be applied to the March for Science.
The excitement and support fueling the March for Science is encouraging, but it would be a shame to waste all of that potential on yet another partisan political fight.
Arthur W. Lambert, PhD, is a postdoctoral researcher at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Whitehead Institute.
This is why I may NOT march even though I have been a professional scientist in academia and biotechnology for many years.
Of course, I am upset about the total disregard for scientific facts and scientific methods by both right-wing and left-wing politicians and individuals. It isn’t only climate deniers on the right but anti-vaccines soccer moms, alternative medicine advocates, and deniers of genetic influences on behaviors on the left. None have respect for the scientific method if the results contradict their previously held beliefs.
However, the people leading this march are naive about business and politics, and the focus is clearly that scientists know BOTH the problems (e.g., the causes of global warming) and hope to DICTATE the solutions (e.g., governmental mandates on emissions of CO2 and CH4). Scientists clearly do not want to allow elected officials to come up with solutions.
Let’s take global warming as an example since it is mentioned so often in these posts. I firmly believe it is occurring due to human activities. But, what should the response be to global warming? There are at least three:
1) Rigid governmental restrictions on emitting CO2 and CH4 into the atmosphere;
2) Allowing a certain amount of such gases and allowing industry to trade allowances, a cap and trade system;
3) Ignoring the problem and stating that we just don’t know enough about remediation right now and will watch the problem while experts come up with technological solutions, e.g., carbon sequestration or climate engineering.
Those are policy decisions because the results impact all citizens’ lives. And, in this country, scientists don’t get to make these decisions because they are not elected officials.
In addition, the hyperbole used by many of the people as a reason to march is likely to backfire. IMHO, global warming is not an existential crisis but a financial one because most of our cities are located low-lying areas. Our ancestors survived ice ages with open fires and animal skins for protection so don’t tell me that global warming is an issue for the existence of her species. That type of talk needs to be reserved for issues like full-scale nuclear war, gamma ray explosions, etc.
I think you need to flex your imagination a little bit. Climate change isn’t an existential threat? Really?
So, the world’s current “breadbaskets” produce less and less per year. The world’s population is growing. Most people live in the cities and close to sure. Most people live in varying degrees of poverty. Those people, literally billions of them, will have to migrate… somewhere. Meanwhile fresh water is becoming scarce in many heavily populated areas (the US South?) and natural disasters are becoming more frequent and severe.
And these are just the facts. You can easily make the argument that increased warfare and geo-political tension will be the result of all that – very easily. You can reach pretty sinister conclusions about the decrease in food production combined with unprecedented human migrations. You can see how the increase in frequency and severity of natural disasters would affect a world with a reduced capacity to handle them.
In short – I think you need to think a little more. Climate change may not be a nuclear war – but unlike nuclear war, it is guaranteed to happen. Downplaying the significance of this is unwise.
“Scientists clearly do not want to allow elected officials to come up with solutions.”
This is, quite frankly, bullcrap. Elected officials, in consultation with scientists and economists, must come up with solutions.
But they haven’t been, because they’ve been too preoccupied with denying that there is a problem to solve in the first place.
This is why I march, and why you should, too.
P.S. “Existential” is a matter of degree. And extreme financial crises tend to have very real human costs. You’re building a straw man (or cherry picking arguments) if you think the only real concern that would matter, which you single out for hyperbole, is extinction.
The 2 replies make my point very well. Nicholas starts with a denigrating, smart ass statement, “This is, quite frankly, bullcrap”, and ends with an invitation “This is why I march, and why you should, too.” My suggestion to him is to read “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Ryan suggests a lot of “facts” that are nothing of the sort or have solutions, e.g., breadbaskets can move, freshwater could be provided by more desalinization plants, etc. Then he ends with “In short – I think you need to think a little more.”
I couldn’t have made the point about condescending attitudes better if I tried.
It doesn’t bother me because I am an accomplished scientist and used to such discussions. But, think of how the “man in the street” and elected politicians feel when told such things. It is no wonder that there is a huge backlash against intellectual and financial elites. I wish I had a solution but I don’t.
Andrew, if you think you are being condescended to, perhaps it would be worth it to you to consider that maybe, just maybe, it is in reaction to your own arrogance.
That you claim to be an accomplished scientist saying such ignorant things makes it worse.
Just to put a fine point on it, Andrew: Are you a climate scientist? Are you an economist? Are you an oceanographer? Have you done related work? What expertise do you claim for your definitive statements that climate change will not be that bad?
Why should someone listen to you and not to those who are doing the work?
Actually, as a (young, kindergarten-level) scientist I disagree. Before starting my PhD, I spent almost 4 years working in scientific informal education in one of the top-10 scientific museums/science communication centres worldwide (and now I am still involved in a group involved in science communication activities on a voluntary base, as a member of their scientific board).
It is really true that Science does not depend on “the context”? Maybe it is (should be – we all hope it really is) true for results. But it is definitely not true for all the rest: to produce results I need money, and this money comes from society. Our results in the end will go back to the society that is backing up our work. We have a heavy role in our society, because progress starts from our curiosity. We give away the better parts of our life – as you said – getting committed to that, and if we don’t want to see all our efforts (either personal and as a group within society) getting “lost in translation”, we should work on this “translation”. We have to talk to society, if we want to raise attention and
concerns in the general public on how much our work affect their life. We have to make people understanding that. And, as my Italian grandma would have said, if you want to make a good pasta, you have to put your hands in it.
Is it a March for Science the best way? Probably not. Probably, a “perfect way” does not even exists. But I really believe this March could be a good starting point, helping both our colleagues and the public in reflecting about the mutual role of science/scientific community and society as a whole.
(And, obviously, society has a lot to do with politics. Maybe I am not that worried about that because, as an epidemiologist, I see every day the connection between science and policymaking, which is something pretty “political”).
I’ve also made a decision not to march for similar reasons.
I emailed the Brisbane (Australia) March for Science organizers offering to volunteer because I was eager to be involved in any cause that promotes good science and good research.
I explained in my email that given my less than ideal experiences as a University researcher in Brisbane, I had concerns that the March had the potential to be hijacked by university marketing departments to become a marketing vehicle. In order to reassure myself I requested information about the people/organizations involved in organizing the March, and also whether or not a commitment to research integrity was an integral part activities purported to support good science and research.
The reply I received from the Brisbane March for Science Coordinator did not provide the information I sought. It stated, “We certainly encourage you to attend the event and carry a placard expressing your desire to support integrity in science. Hopefully your participation in the event can help reinforce your belief in scientists and their research”.
MY Desires? Reinforce MY Beliefs? WTF!!
This strangely uninformative and patronizing response to a direct request for information motivated me to Google the woman’s name. Someone with her name is employed as a MARKETING AND ENGAGEMENT OFFICER at a University in Brisbane.
If it looks like a duck…..
“Scientists are highly educated, the academic version of the 1 percent Wall Street class”
Oh really? So now the money worshiping masters of the universe are now about equal to those who devote their lives to knowledge and the advancement of humanity.
The march against science driven by the ideological agendas of those too busy checking the color and or genitals of the researchers to actually do the work.
The four hobby horses of the apocalypse scuttled this event, and now it is just researcher on researcher violence.
Breaking news: white male scientist has totally original opinions about relationship between ‘politics’ and science
I hope you didn’t cut yourself on that edge of yours.
Author is not going to the march because reasons, but offers no alternative solution to rising anti-science rhetoric. *slow clap*
I believe that scientists have been too passive about the mission and value of what they do. It would seem that they expect scientific truth to speak for itself. I sincerely wish that it could. Politicians know that if they disparage science, remove funding and destroy scientific data, then they can can be the ones to define the truth for us. Scientists, please stand up and resist, for all our sakes.
Agreed. While science has been under attack in Congress for decades, it’s now at a crisis point. Republicans in Congress want to all but eliminate scientific considerations from policy decisions. It’s worse even than in Bush junior’s administration. Standing by and doing nothing will only embolden the naysayers, and further confuse and dishearten supporters of science. Scientists, and those like me who believe in the value of their work, need to step forward. Silence is no longer an option. Now it’s war.
This is a very weak article; probably getting lots of clicks because the headline is provocative. Taking Dr. Lambert’s apparent main points.
1. He may believe that “politics has no place at the lab bench”: He can believe that if he wants, but this is about taking politics out of the lab, and into the visible public space.
2. “Alienating those it seeks to convince”: This isn’t about pleading with the masses; it’s about showing a presence, and some power.
3. “Ultimately, the problem … is its scope”: Scope isn’t generally considered a problem.
4. He’s “actually schedule to teach a cell biology course that morning”: Sounds a little self-righteous to me, but have a great class.
This is what John P. Holdren, Obama’s science advisor, has to say about the march: http://www.belfercenter.org/publication/some-thoughts-scientists-march
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