This post is written by NCA&T faculty Joe Graves
On the 13th of April, Nature, the publication of the British Association for Advancement of Science (and founded by Charles Darwin) endorsed the March for Science (https://www.marchforscience.com/ ). Nature is one of over 100 professional scientific organization that have endorsed the march, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Union of Concerned Scientists, the European Geosciences Union, American Chemical Society, and others. There are now over 500 satellite marches planned (including all the BEACON partner sites: Lansing, MI; Pullman WA and Moscow, ID; Seattle, WA; and Austin, TX). As a member of the coordinating committee for March for Science (Greensboro) I would like to extend to all BEACONites a personal invitation to join us on April 22nd, 2017 as we march to inform the public concerning the crucial importance of supporting both the scientific method of reasoning and enterprise for the health of our nation and world.
This march is about much more than recent cuts to science funding. Having said that, the projected cuts are stark. Last month, the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) released an analysis of the Trump administration’s FY 2018 budget’s impact on scientific research and education2. The Trump budget would increase military spending by 10% to approximately $639 billion dollars. To pay for this increase cuts are projected to occur for the Environmental Protection Agency (-30%), Department of Agriculture (-29%), Department of Energy offices of Science (-16%) and to the National Institutes of Health (-18%). The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant programs would be cut by $250 million. These programs support coastal and marine research and education. The Sea Grant program, which provides research, education, and extension services, would be eliminated.
At a time when the world is in dire need of advances in scientific research such cuts could have disastrous consequences. Therefore it is imperative to march to demonstrate our passion for science and sound a call to support and safeguard the scientific community. The incredible and immediate outpouring of support for the marches has made clear that these concerns are also shared by the support of hundreds of thousands of people around the world.
It is also crucial to reject the mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue. Despite the popular conception that most scientists are political “liberals”, scientists have always displayed ideological views that cross the political spectrum. Let us not forget that Wernher Von Braun (who utilized Jewish slave labor to build his rockets) and Shiro Ichii (microbiologist head of Unit 761 that deployed anthrax and bubonic plague weapons on Chinese civilians) were scientists. In addition both of these men had their war crimes ignored because the technology they developed was desired by the United States after World War II had ended. Indeed, as I have mentioned in earlier posts, science as an enterprise and many scientists have often been ardent supporters of unjust and inhumane social policies. Indeed, despots of all varieties and flavors are more than happy to support scientific research and products that are consistent with their own political agenda. The US Supreme Court utilized the science of the racial polygenists (Louis Agassiz and Samuel Morton) to justify their decision that Dred Scott or any other Negro had “no rights that a white man was bound to respect” in 1857 (Graves 2005) and about 50 years later would deny that same racial science in not recognizing the right to citizenship of Bhagat Singh Thind under the Caucasian requirement (Bean and Lee 2009). Just as today there is no argument made by policy makers against the science involved in producing and deploying the “mother of all bombs”, GBU-43/B used in Afghanistan last week (http://www.cnn.com/2017/04/13/politics/afghanistan-isis-moab-bomb/ ), while at the same time they have no problem denying the physics and chemistry behind anthropogenic climate change.
What scientists agree on is the power of our method, dubbed “the scientific method” to provide the world utilitarian knowledge about nature. Evolutionary science is among those fields most fertile in that regard. As early as the 1940’s evolutionary biologists like Th. Dobzhansky warned the world concerning the danger resulting from the unchecked use of pesticides and antibiotics. At the time, these warnings were summarily ignored (e.g. Van den Bosch 1978), yet it is now recognized that we may be entering the “post-antibiotic” phase of human civilization (http://www.bbc.com/news/health-34857015). In a more strange case, scientists including evolutionary biologists utilized knowledge of past global level extinction events, warned the world concerning the fallacy of “limited nuclear war” (Ehrlich et al. 1983). These warnings have gone unheeded, as the United States still maintains a nuclear arsenal capable of killing the world’s population eight times over (although it can be argued that the movement to build more powerful non-nuclear engines of mass destruction is evidence that these warnings have been taken seriously).
The mistaken view that scientists are political liberals has given some of our current policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence, especially when it contradicts their specific political agenda or the profit motives of those who put them into office. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the current attack on climate science. For example, Dr. Michael Mann warned congress of the dangers of this phenomenon over 14 years ago. Since that time he has been sued, forced to testify in front of congress, been investigated, and received death threats (Mann and Toles 2016).
So in reality, it is not that those in power do not accept science, it is that they “cherry pick” which science they will accept and support. The Republican Party has been historically anti-evolution mainly because much of its political base (evangelical Christians) is anti-evolution. It is now anti-climate science because much of its financial support comes from industries that want to continue developing and burning fossil fuels. Days after taking office, the Trump Administration initiated a poll asking American manufacturers how to best cut federal regulations to make it easier for companies to get their projects approved. There were 168 comments received and ½ were directed at the Environmental Protection Agency and 1/5 toward the Department of Labor. Some examples of these comments include:
BP wants to make it easier to drill for oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico by reducing how often companies must renew their leases.
A trade association representing the pavement industry wants to preclude the U.S. Geological Survey from conducting what the group says is “advocacy research” into the environmental impact of coal tar. The Pavement Coatings Technology Council says this research could limit what it uses to seal parking lots and driveways.
Clearly in the case of both of these comments, scientific principles and scientists working for these corporations are involved in both drilling for oil and gas, and developing the sealing technologies mentioned.
Thus I do not see the rejection of science as the most critical and urgent matter to be addressed by this march. More it is scientists themselves recognizing that science and its applications have always been political. In this light, it is time for people who support scientific research and evidence-based policies for the public good to take a stand and be counted. Many who take the podium this week will be not be willing to make the distinctions I have discussed above. They will be parroting time worn platitudes and trying to find the lowest common denominator concerning how and why science should be supported. On the contrary, I will be speaking to the need for scientists to rise up against those who are applying our craft to support the corporate greed that is driving the wanton destruction of our environment and against those who are applying our craft to maintain social injustice. I will call scientists to imagine a different way of working for humanity.
Indeed, for this to happen we as scientists will have to look inwards. We will have to ask questions about why we do what we do, and how the science enterprise is in the main still a Eurocentric, male-dominated, heterosexist project. If we can manage this conversation productively we will move towards the day when our community will be more representative of all socially-defined races and ethnicities, religions, gender identities, sexual orientations, abilities, socioeconomic backgrounds, political perspectives, and nationalities. And with this diversity, we will be more capable of implementing scientific research that actually does better the lives of all those who now depend on us more than ever before.
Bean, F.dD. and Lee, J. Plus ḉa Change. . .? Multiraciality and the Dynamics of Race Relations in the United States, Journal of Social Issues 65(1):205—209, 2009.
Ehrlich, P.R., Harte, J., Harwell, M.A., Raven, P.H., et al., Long-term biological consequences of nuclear war, Science 222: 1293—3000, 1983.
Graves, J.L., The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers U. Press), 2005.
Mann, M. and Toles, T., The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy (New York: Columbia University Press), 2016.
Van den Bosch, R., The Pesticide Conspiracy, (Berkeley, CA: U. California Press), 1978.