America’s scientists turn into activists

America’s scientists turn into activists

By Ellen Ratner   

WASHINGTON – There is almost nonstop news about the Russians this week. That might be top of the news, but many other important stories are happening. I am concerned about the assault on science.

President Donald Trump is a smart man, and he has shown his willingness to not bend to groups such as the Freedom Caucus. Now, he needs to not bend to people who don’t like what science is putting out.

There have been proposed cuts in parts of the budget that deal with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). There have been critics of the NIH since AIDS emerged, but the solution is not just to cut the money but to reform the way it operates. Simply cutting money does not reform science.

Scientists are often academics, studying their craft and staying in their labs. Not this year, though. They are planning to march on Earth Day, April 22, in Washington.

Called the March for Science, they have a website, a way to sign up for the March in Washington and satellite demonstrations all over the world. They even have a store that is selling T-shirts. The website asks about the future marchers’ connection to science. Because they are scientists, they even have a way to join the march virtually.

What are they trying to do?

The march champions “funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity. We unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest.”

The march’s universal goals are more inclusive than when the baby boomers were studying science in the 20th century. Back then, we were taught it was “science,” and issues like African-American women at NASA were not discussed or even thought about. Today we have a popular movie, “Hidden Figures,” about these women. Back then, we just learned about NASA and the possibility of going to the moon.

The April 22 march this year has inclusivity as one of its core goals. In its “core principles,” the very first one says: “[S]cience serves the interests of all humans, not just those in power. We recognize that inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility in science are critical to ensure that science reaches its potential to serve all communities. We must protect the rights of every person to engage with, learn from, and help shape science, free from manipulation by special interests.”

Other principles of the march are: evidence-based policy and regulations in the public interest; cutting-edge science education; diversity and inclusion in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math); open, honest science; and inclusive public outreach and funding for scientific research and its applications. They have other goals for the march, including to humanize science; partner with the public; advocate for open, inclusive and accessible science; and to affirm science as a democratic value.

Last week, I went to a NOAA-funded museum and presentation. Climate change and preservation of the “blue marble,” as earth is called, was one of the main focuses of the presentation. Is public funding going to disappear in this fiscal year beginning Oct. 1? Will the science behind climate change disappear, too?

NOAA is due for a $250-million cut under this new budget. It will be interesting to find out if members of Congress are going to support cuts that will touch their local communities, such as the museum I visited last week. Museums are one of the education groups for STEM funding. What happens to America if that funding goes away? Where will young people test their ideas and get part of their science education? Will America be in decline in terms of STEM education because politicians don’t want to talk about climate change?

The fact that scientists are marching is incredible. That is not the image that most of us grew up with. Science is now a political football in terms of funding, and the denial of climate change is turning academics into activists.

Now, one of the goals of the march is to “hold political leaders and policymakers accountable if they silence, ignore, attack, or distort scientific evidence.”

Scientists are taking to the streets and making sure their voices and work are being heard. Even if they are leaving their labs for a day, it means the academics are becoming activists. What a pleasant surprise.

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