By David Casalaspi
On Saturday, people around the globe turned out at hundreds of “March for Science” events to protest what is perceived to be a growing disregard in American politics for evidence-based knowledge. The main event, held in Washington D.C. as a sort of parallel to the “Women’s March” in January, attracted over 15,000 people.
The events, which were intentionally held on Earth Day, were billed as being nonpartisan—a “celebration of science” designed to remind policymakers of “the vital role science plays in our democracy.” But according to news reports, many of the attendees appeared to be at least partially motivated by recent political events (here and here). These include the Trump Administration’s embrace of “alternative facts” and its budget proposal calling for deep funding cuts for science and research, especially areas related to climate change. When viewed in the context of the larger spirit of protest during Trump’s first 100 days, it is hard not to view the marches as tainted by partisan concerns about the direction of the new administration.
One partner of the March for Science was the American Educational Research Association (AERA), which holds its annual conference this coming week in San Antonio. In a statement announcing support for the March, AERA Executive Director Felice J. Levine said, “It is an important opportunity for AERA as a scholarly and scientific society to join with other individuals and organizations to send a message about the value of science to society and the significant contributions and discoveries made possible by the scientific enterprise. For those of us engaged in scientific inquiry, this is part of a continuing conversation to draw positive attention to the power of science and the value of using science and evidence-based research to inform policy and practice across sectors.”
All told, over 100 scientific and research organizations joined AERA in partnering with the “March for Science.” But within the scientific community itself, however, there have been doubts about the appropriateness of political mobilization. Organizers justified the “March for Science” by pointing to the recent discrediting of science on key social problems as well as recent efforts to restrict research. Other “March for Science” proponents expressed optimism that the events would help scientists learn to better connect with the public and make their presence felt more forcefully. Just as other Americans have organized around issues like the environment and healthcare, many attendees believed the scientific community should exercise its own right to organize as well.
One fear among some scientists, though, is that activism like the “March for Science” will only politicize science, thus undermining the public’s faith that scientists are capable of acting objectively and rigorously in the pursuit of truth. Scientists, in the opinion of these skeptics, should merely provide dispassionate evidence on key social questions to policymakers. In general, they should be quiet and simply let the data speak for itself. Political protest, particularly at such a polarized time, may only empower critics of the scientific community to dismiss scientific work as politically biased. Robert S. Young, a professor of coastal geology at Western Carolina University, recently illustrated this concern in a January Op-Ed published in the New York Times:
“Among scientists, understandably, there is growing fear that fact-based decision-making is losing its seat at the policymaking table. There’s also overwhelming frustration with the politicization of science by climate change skeptics and others who see it as threatening to their interests or beliefs. But trying to recreate the pointedly political Women’s March will serve only to reinforce the narrative from skeptical conservatives that scientists are an interest group and politicize their data, research, and findings for their own ends.”
This debate over the proper role of scientists in a democratic society—as activists or as dispassionate experts— will certainly rage in academia for the next several years. Indeed, greater political activism, as exemplified by events like the “March for Science,” could potentially improve society if it mobilizes the scientific community and the broader public in a clear demonstration of support for scientifically-based policymaking. At the same time, though, the risks of further alienation of the scientific community from policymakers are also very real, particularly in those social science domains like education which are already relatively politicized. There is a fine line between science and advocacy, and if the research community strays too far away from it on either side, it risks either isolating itself from meaningful political discussions or discrediting itself as a body of unbiased experts.
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