Why march for science?

This April 22 there will be a March for Science in Washington, D. C. and many other marches in support around the country. The March for Science is motivated (at least in part) by the sense that science is not valued or supported by the current administration. This sense has led various scientists to back up government data on private servers, leak to the press notices of gag orders from superiors and create “rogue” Twitter accounts that spread the rod about environmental damage and climate change.

I’m not sure how much I speak for scientists in general, but I’m not the protesting type. I (and I suspect many scientists) need good reasons to march. Here I am presenting a few reasons that I think are worth making some noise about. Clear goals are also important because without them we risk marking a lot of noise without any concrete plan for the next step. Another concern is that with only a vague agenda we risk placing science too clearly on one side of the partisan divide. Science has received bipartisan support in the past. I’m not saying we should avoid every controversial topic or “political” topics. I think, however, we can have goals that are not based in the traditional left/right political divide.

The agenda I’m proposing has two broad strokes. First, the practice of science should be adequately funded as well as supported by government and institutional policies. Second, science should be valued by society and used to inform policy. These are, I hope, good reasons to march for science.

Part 1: Supporting the practice of science

To properly support the practice of science in the United States the following are needed. These are not in any order of priority. I feel they are all necessary and important.

Financial support for NSF, NIH, NASA and the DOE

The bulk of the basic research in our country is funded by the United States government through these government agencies: the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the National Aeronautic and Space Administration and the Department of Energy (which includes the National Labs). Without adequate funding for these agencies, very little basic science is going to get done. Grants from these agencies also provide for the education of most of the future scientists in the U.S. as well. In other words, without these agencies there is not future of science because there won’t be any scientists.

Freedom of travel for international scholars

Many foreign nationals come to the United States to attend school or to do research as post-doctoral fellows (“post-docs”). While here they contribute strongly to the scientific output of U.S. labs and many stay and are productive in science for many years. The lab I worked in during graduate school was about half international scholars from many countries including Germany, Switzerland, U.K., Spain, Italy, China, and Turkey. These scientists deserve to be able to visit their families at home and know they will be able to return to finish their school or their research.

There is a second group, scholars who live abroad but come to the United States for conferences and to meet with collaborators. These scholars ought to have assurance they will gain entry to the U.S. without harassment. In graduate school, I had a collaborator from Germany, and his two visits to the U.S. were times of enormous progress for our research. Recent treatment of scholars will only serve to convince international scientists that visiting the United States is not worth the trouble, harming the practice of science in the U.S. and around the world.

Government data should be freely available. Government scientists should be free to publish their work

No government should decide what results do or don’t get published, regardless of whether that data supports or refutes certain policies of that government. The practice of science requires that scientists be able to evaluate one another’s work. If a piece of science is bad it will be found and criticized by other scientists, then empirically shown to be correct or incorrect. This method of verification requires the free flow of ideas and, more importantly, data. The selective release of data from government labs will also draw into question any data published because other scientists will question the motives behind the data release, undermining the work of all government scientists under all circumstances.

Programs that foster diversity, inclusion and equity in science should be funded and promoted.

The progress of science is harmed without the contributions of scientists from all backgrounds. The quality of science as well as the application and communication of that science is improved by broad participation, particularly by individuals from groups that are and continue to be under-represented. At times things are said in the communication of science that are hurtful to one group of people that could easily have been avoided in an environment where people of diverse backgrounds can be heard.

For reasons I’m not sure I understand, the idea that people of all backgrounds should have their contributions valued and their concerns addressed, and that we should have programs, checks and policies that evaluate how we’re doing has been labeled “political” and there are those who think it has no place in the March for Science. I disagree. It’s not political, it’s just the right thing to do.

Programs that promote student-centered and inquiry-based teaching should be supported

As scientists who value the research of others we should take the lead in moving away from lecture as the basis of teaching toward techniques that have been proven over and over to be more effective. We should support programs (like the POGIL Project) that help secondary and college instructors learn how to more effectively teach their subjects. Better teaching will lead to more students be successful in science and engineering courses and help those in general education courses gain a better understanding and appreciation of science, becoming more supportive citizens of science later in life.

Part 2: Valuing Science

Basic science should not be used as an example of “government waste”

We all have heard of the duck penis study and the shrimp on a treadmill study which have been help up as examples of waste in government spending. As scientists we know that basic research has to follow its own path and can lead to many breakthroughs later that aren’t apparent at the beginning. We need to emphasize this fact to the public. We should also remind the public that all federal basic research funding undergoes rigorous review before funding. Scientists must demonstrate in their funding application that their study is a good idea (“intellectual merit”) and will have broader impacts for science and society.

As scientists and supporters of science we should push back when politicians use science as an example of “government waste”. A prime example of this is my own U.S. Senator James Lankford who issues an annual report on waste. I intend from now on to scrutinize and criticize that report as it applies to science and I encourage others to do so as well.

Public policy should be based on science, not pseudo-science

We have strong evidence that smoking cigarettes causes cancer, and thus we have government policies that deter smoking such as high taxes on tobacco and restrictions on advertising. However, we also have evidence that high rates of immunization are necessary to protect us from terrible diseases and yet many states allow parents to opt out of immunization for no medical reason at all. The practice of non-medical opting out needlessly endangers the lives of all children, not just those who are unvaccinated. This is a situation where government policy, based on evidence, is necessary to protect everyone.

Another example is climate change. I will admit that I was deeply skeptical of climate change for many years, but the evidence keeps mounting that it is a real effect, that it is already happening and that it is caused by humans, largely because of the burning of fossil fuels. Action to mitigate climate change requires government intervention due to the magnitude of the problem (it’s literally global) and the urgency of taking action. There are many policies proposed to reduce carbon emissions and stem climate change. Some of these policies are more liberal and some are more conservative. But we have to push our representatives to accept that climate change is happening and require them to take action.
My goal in writing this post was to find goals that all scientists and supporters of science can agree upon. What have I left out? What have I not adequately defended? Comments welcome.


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