The scientific community is divided about the planned March for Science. Adherents say that it is necessary to direct the public eye to the plight of scientific enterprise in an administration that apparently (and as many of us predicted) does not value scientific expertise. Detractors argue that the march would serve to politicize science and “turn scientists into another interest group.”
With all due respect to these views, I submit that science has already been politicized, and it was not the doing of the scientific community.
I’ve had this debate before. Some on social media like to argue that “advocacy” undermines scientific integrity somehow, or that stating an opinion about policies that are relevant to one’s research is a conflict of interest. I deeply disagree with both positions, and in fact, I think that the scientific community’s rigid adherence to the idea that “scientists don’t have political opinions” is a part of why we’re in the situation that we’re in.
You see, those in politics who have a problem with science—climate-change deniers, anti-vaccination activists, evolution deniers, anti-NASA advocates, whatever they may be—know very well that science and policy are intertwined. Scientists who assert that their research into climate change, medicine, etc., has no social policy dimension are saying something that, quite frankly, nobody else finds credible. It comes across as an attempt at deception, whether of oneself or of the general public, and it does not help the scientist’s case.
I’m going to propose that something like the following is what a layperson hears instead:
“My climate research has found a link between severe drought and global change, but don’t get me wrong—that’s not political! It’s just pure science. I’m not saying that any government should attempt to do anything about drought mitigation or emissions reduction; I’m just stating a fact! Now, more research money from the taxpayers, please?”
Yeah, I wouldn’t be convinced either.
It is true that it does not logically follow that a climate realist must support any given policy prescription. I’ve argued this before too: Accepting climate research does not mean that one must accept the entire “green” policy package. However, it is morally difficult to accept the reality of climate change and not think that something should be done about it. We can have differences of opinion as to what should be done, or who should do it, but inaction does not really seem morally defensible here (and in fact, some moderate-conservative Republicans are coming around to support carbon taxes, state-level action, and market forces in curbing emissions, such as the “Green Tea Coalition” that is pro-solar).
The layperson knows this. The (in this case) climate skeptic knows it too. Inaction is morally indefensible, so a person who—for whatever reason, be it financial conflict of interest, tribal partisan identity, or simple fear of personal disruption such as a coal miner might feel—doesn’t want to act can justify that decision only by denying the science itself. This particular field of scientific research (and many others) cannot be wholly decoupled from the political dimension, and it is a fruitless effort to attempt to do so. I don’t think we even convince ourselves of that, let alone anyone else, and as I said, I think we come across as dishonest when we try.
In the absolute best case, asserting that “scientists aren’t political” results in the removal of our voices from the debate about our research, our profession, and our integrity. If we take our speech out of the picture (and even attack those in our community who do speak out), the opponents of science are the only ones talking. The public doesn’t note our absence and think, “Oh, the scientific community isn’t speaking, so therefore the interests of scientists aren’t political.” They just don’t hear our side at all. It doesn’t take two sides to an issue for that issue to be “politicized.” It only takes one, and that one has already made scientists’ interests a political issue. The March for Science won’t do that; it’s already been done to us. We’ve been paying the price for our own timidity, and the march is a way to change that.
Let’s be perfectly clear about this: Federal research funding is under grave threat. Federal researchers fear a chilling of free scientific inquiry in the government. Young scientists and new graduates are afraid that they won’t even have jobs in the field that they just dedicated years of their lives to studying, and that they’ll be considered “overqualified” to do much of anything else. This is not “business as usual.” This is not the normal ebb and flow of policy, Democrat vs. Republican. This is a profoundly anti-intellectual populist movement that has scientists of all partisan leanings in its crosshairs, Republican scientists not excepted.
Further, I hold a position that the anti-marchers probably won’t like one bit: Scientists are an interest group. It’s time we started to act like one.
I don’t think the term “interest group” should be a “dirty word.” It’s simply an acknowledgment of an important fact in a pluralistic society: People are different and have different, occasionally competing needs. Policymaking is partly about balancing the needs of each “interest group” for the common good. You show me someone who isn’t part of an interest group, and I’ll show you a vacuum.
Populist movements like to use “interest groups” and “special interests” as bogeymen, turning them into tyrannical minorities and making them “the other” to the group of people that they are inciting to anger, but in reality everyone is part of an “interest group,” usually more than one. The “white working class” is an interest group. Fossil fuel labor is an interest group. Rural voters are an interest group (and all of the above are minorities of the United States population, in fact). The scientific community shouldn’t buy into the populist idea that being part of an interest group is bad, but instead, should embrace it as a stance against anti-democratic populism. American policy is at its best when it respectfully considers the interests and rights of all affected groups, instead of playing the deceitful, divisive game of pitting one minority population against another as “enemies.” (I don’t want to cast stones here, but I’d like to point out that both the Trumpian right and the identity-politics left do this, and it has been very harmful.)
Furthermore, interest groups that acknowledge their situation have done pretty well in policy, on both liberal and conservative sides. The civil rights movement wouldn’t have gotten too far if it had ignored the racial minority aspect. Same for the LGBT community. Religious groups acknowledge their distinguishing characteristic and openly lobby for favorable policies. Most recently, and perhaps most applicably to scientists (since it is a career), law enforcement lobbies have gotten legislatures in several states to pass “Blue Lives Matter” bills. Recognizing and uniting around a dimension of one’s identity turns a collection of disparate voices into a powerful force.
From a pragmatic standpoint, it’s in scientists’ best interest to band together around policy issues that concern them, get involved more (especially scientists who are Republicans—your voices are sorely needed!), speak out, and support science advocacy groups. Perhaps some do not want to participate in a March for Science for personal reasons. That’s fine. But let’s all recognize certain realities, including—especially—the reality that the status quo of scientists’ near non-involvement in policy discussion has materially hurt our profession, while doing nothing to prevent the “politicization” of science in the public mind. We are an interest group. Our research is frequently supported with taxpayer monies, and many of us conduct research that has policy implications (or connections, at a minimum). Like it or not, we’re part of policy and politics. Pretending these things are not so will not convince anyone to support science.