Columns, Opinions

Liang ’19: Scientific advocacy starts with the scientists

By
Staff Columnist
Monday, February 13, 2017

Science is at war. There’s no other way to say it — between the rogue Twitter accounts of NASA and the National Park Service and the planned March for Science on Earth Day, recent political events have incensed scientists across the nation. President Donald Trump’s administration has yet to hire a scientific advisor, and researchers are suddenly crawling out of the woodwork with their social commentary for the first time. All I can say is: about freaking time.

Okay, maybe I’m over-exaggerating. But let me provide some context for my disgruntlement: The day after the election, I was eager to discuss its political consequences with my professors. In my history class, we spent a whole hour discussing the implications of the win for public policy, international relations and department funding. In my chemistry class, we only discussed chemistry. I don’t think we even mentioned the election in my research lab.

Now I know what some of you are probably thinking: “Science is science, and it should be that way in the classroom and in the lab,” or “leave the research for the scientists and the thinking for the policy wonks” or even “wait, we have a history department?” But all you skeptics should understand that the political environment will irrevocably affect us scientists too. We are now facing prospective funding cuts in especially politicized fields such as environmental science and health policy, among others.

Just as Trump’s presidency has split the political atmosphere into factions, so too is the scientific field divided between people who believe research should continue above the partisan nature of politics and those who now feel the need to publicly dissent. For a lot of scientists and engineers, dissent is an unfamiliar concept. A lot of this is ingrained in our training; we are taught that our results should speak for themselves and that truth and evidence will eventually prevail. The scientific method does not include an addendum for activism or advocacy. We value quality and peer-revision over loudness, and for the most part this strategy has worked.

But along the way, some researchers have forgotten a vital part of their audience: the American public. Scientific papers are regularly released with the most fantastic of discoveries but are often rarely read by people outside the scientific community. Even worse, these discoveries are pulled out of context and misinterpreted, leading to the concept known as “bad science” (I’m looking at you, anti-vaxxers). Our lack of engagement makes us partially to blame for the scientifically inept fiasco that is our current administration. The American public deserves better, both from them and from us.

Scientific literacy in the United States is low; the general public does well enough to recite certain facts, but it struggles to interpret the societal implications of major scientific findings. Part of that can be attributed to scientists ­— they don’t engage with the riff-raff until the riff-raff becomes loud enough to, let’s say, inspire a March for Science. Marches are great only if they can lead to some sort of sustained campaign or change. Scientists need to be more proactive, rather than reactionary, if we are to accomplish real change in the field of scientific policy.

Scientists should become better advocates for their research to the general public, and that requires communication skills that sometimes aren’t covered as part of a science curriculum, even at Brown. I would kill to be assigned an essay for one of my science-heavy STEM classes. People argue that climate-change denial and political or philosophical debates should not be mentioned in science textbooks or in the classroom. I disagree — I say give budding researchers the information they need so that they are better equipped to smash arguments apart later. Civic engagement should involve science and those who conduct it, and vice versa.

Myron Ebell, who led the Environmental Protection Agency transition team these last few months, said, “I’m a great believer in science, but I’m not a great believer in politicized science.” My response to Ebell is simply that all science is political. Funding is often controlled by national grants. Public opinion is swayed by and often shapes how science is done. Research does not exist in a vacuum. Science education and literacy is especially politicized; it is the reason textbooks mention James Watson and Francis Crick but not Rosalind Franklin. If we, as researchers, do not advocate for better science education and literacy, we will continue to be uninvited to the table of power in Washington. The sooner we recognize that, the closer we will be to fixing this post-truth world that we live in.

We as scientists can do better so that we understand the consequences of our own work outside the laboratory. Let’s take a more active role in our advisory capacity to help spread evidence-based knowledge. Let’s run for office. Let’s teach. Let’s publish in Nature, but also in magazines and local newspapers. The New York Times recently ran a headline saying, “In Age of Trump, Scientists Show Signs of a Political Pulse.” We should have had that heartbeat a long time ago.

Mark Liang ’19 is preparing his picket signs. He can be reached at mark_liang@brown.edu.  Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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