Every time I opened Google News last month, I hesitated with bated breath before scrolling down to the ‘Science’ section. I found myself too nervous to read whatever shocking policy changes would be waiting for me there. Even a month after the inauguration, I and many other scientists continue to wonder what the next four years will have in store. Everything related to science in the US, from basic research funding to environmental policy changes, feels like it’s at the cusp of challenging days ahead.
I empathize with the scientists who are silenced and for my friends and colleagues who work at government institutions, wondering how their jobs will be affected. I cheer on the rogue twitter accounts (my personal favorite being the tongue-in-cheek @MordorNPS) and I started preparing letters to the members of congress who are proposing bills that would damage the integrity of environmental regulations. But despite my empathy with the plight of government researchers and concerns for what an “alternative facts” administration will do over the next four years, I am hesitant to fully support the concept of a March for Science. I am concerned that the march will further polarize the dialogue at the interface of science and politics instead of harmonizing science communication and public outreach.
In the US, scientists are overwhelmingly liberal, with 55% identifying as Democratic, 32% Independent, and only 6% as Republican. In contrast, scientific literacy, or illiteracy, is less partisan—and it’s incorrect to label one party as ‘anti-science’ over another. Scientists may tend to picture concepts such as not believing in global warming or evolution as primarily conservative viewpoints. But while 50% of conservatives surveyed said that they thought the earth was only 10,000 years old, so did 33% of liberals. Recent concerns about how Trump’s comments could potentially fuel the anti-vaccine movement didn’t mention the fact that a higher percentage of Democrats believe that vaccines are not safe.
While there are extremely vocal Conservative opponents of ideas like climate change and evolution, there is a general understanding and support for the science underpinning climate change among representatives of the Republican Party. Recent news articles have highlighted bills put forth by freshmen Republican representatives to disband the US EPA, but at the same time other Republicans are working on a national carbon tax to address climate change. This effort is supported by senior Republicans who said that the “mounting evidence of climate change is growing too strong to ignore”. The difference between the two parties is not necessarily a belief in the science but in how that information is used to shape policies, and Republicans will generally advocate for less restrictive and more open market policies to approach these problems.
Yes, there are vocal opponents of climate change science, and yes, the current administration has already done numerous things to warrant mistrust from scientists—but to seemingly discredit an entire party holding a majority position of the federal legislature is not a recipe for making progress. If the March for Science is going to make strides in its goal of sharing clear, non-partisan messages, it will take more than a single act of demonstration against the current administration.
Looking beyond this current administration, it’s not a solid long-term strategy for scientists to be primarily aligned with only one side of the political spectrum. In American politics, one party is never in power for long, and the office of the President tends to alternate back and forth between red and blue (and the same trend follows for the House and Senate). This pendulum swing is the natural ebb and flow of political leanings in America, and makes Trump’s election win look like it was somewhat inevitable.
Scientists can envision a Democratic presidential victory in 2020 as a stepping stone for progress in science. But what about future elections, from 2024 and beyond? Given the number of problems that need solid scientific solutions, from climate change to antibiotic resistance to a comet crashing into planet earth, can scientists afford to only rely on 4-8 year cycles?
In our post two weeks ago, we discussed the role that Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring had in bringing about significant changes and improvements to environmental protection in the US during the 1960’s. In response to this movement and to help mediate the laws that were being drawn up by separate states and cities, Republican President Richard Nixon founded the US EPA in 1970. The US EPA continues to set national guidelines as well as monitors and enforces those laws, such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.
While Nixon won’t go down as one of America’s most popular presidents, his actions and those of other Republicans in power demonstrate that the GOP is historically not an anti-science group. President Theodore Roosevelt was instrumental in setting up the US Food and Drug Administration, set up five National Parks and numerous National monuments, and went on a few scientific explorations of his own. Senator Barry Goldwater, also a republican, was an advocate for environmental protection efforts in the 1960’s, saying:
While I am a great believer in the free competitive enterprise system and all that it entails, I am an even stronger believer in the right of our people to live in a clean and pollution-free environment. To this end, it is my belief that when pollution is found, it should be halted at the source, even if this requires stringent government action against important segments of our national economy.”
Science is not inherently bipartisan, but scientists, and the issues that they tackle, do have political biases. A danger of a politically-charged event like the March for Science is that it may undermine the public’s perception of a scientist as being a politically unbiased person.
The way in which we choose to stand up for our work as scientists has to go beyond the March for Science. It requires us to develop a clear message of how science can provide support or guidance on the policies our representatives adopt on. Regardless of who is in charge, scientists should always advocate the utility of science and to help enable government policies founded on science, not on political biases. After the march, scientists can work towards this objective by sharing their thoughts and concerns directly with legislators. We should support our representatives who are working on legislation to support clean air and water policies and bills that provide protection for government scientists.
The April 22nd march is a way for scientists to take a stand against the injustices inflicted by the current administration. It’s important that scientists make their voices heard, but we as scientists also need to make sure that the message we are sharing is a clear one: Scientists and researchers are here to help make our world a better place, and we stand beside everyone, in solidarity, for a better tomorrow.