Scientists won’t win until they run

The March for Science takes place this Saturday, the 47th anniversary of the first Earth Day. Tens of thousands of activists will unite on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and they will present one overriding request to the nation and its elected leaders: Facts must inform public policy.

While rallies are critical in terms of spreading a message, the type of substantive change the scientific community seeks — and our country needs — will only be realized when scientists overcome outmoded taboos and evolve. Demonstrating is important. But when it comes to lasting change, scientists themselves need to be within the halls of power. We need to become legislators ourselves.

By now, it’s clear we need a different strategy. Momentum is not moving in our favor and our longstanding approach of only reaching out to legislators on civic affairs is self-defeating. Hoping that every four or eight years we will end up with a president and a Congress sympathetic to our agenda cannot suffice.

I decided that it was time to get off the sidelines and to get involved in the process myself, to champion causes that I felt were neglected by legislators. I thought that Congress could use a scientist’s opinion.

I began my career as a chemist and as a breast cancer researcher. I’m like many of my associates; I find solace in the well-ordered setting of the laboratory. I’m also the first to admit that politics is exhausting —the ceaseless events, the continual encounters with strangers, and the constant requests for donations. It’s something I learned when I ran for Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District. Although I didn’t win, I remain committed to the belief that those of us with an appreciation for science are desperately needed in the political realm.

It is critical that we do more because, today, the discipline of science is threatened by conspiracy theories, fake news, bogus scholarship, and outright derision in an attempt to confuse Americans on the real facts. Worse, the executive branch of our government seems willing to make decisions affecting our lives without grounding them in empirical evidence.

Donald Trump has supplied science skeptics with a megaphone. Radio host and anti-vaccine propagandist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has been approved to chair a commission on “vaccine safety and scientific integrity.” Scott Pruitt, a lawyer who made his career suing the EPA on behalf of oil interests, now runs it. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry is heading the Department of Energy, the agency he pledged to eliminate — and whose name he famously forgot — during his 2012 presidential bid.

Those on the right use the word “scientism,” to imply that science is just another ideology with its own partisan biases, steering too many away from truth and fostering an unfamiliarity with basic facts. Nihilistic skepticism has even become trendy.

Let’s be clear what hangs in the balance: the fate of the historic Paris climate accord, the advancement of renewable energy, and funding for research that pays dividends in the form of new technologies and medical breakthroughs. The Trump administration’s first budget request to the Congress proposes slashing the NIH’s budget by 18 percent, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science by 20 percent, and the EPA by 43 percent. The EPA, to look at but one agency, is being forced to consider scrapping 56 essential programs, including pesticide safety, water runoff control, and environmental cooperation with Mexico and Canada under NAFTA.

But arguably, the most pressing challenge facing the scientific community is internal. The Trump administration’s enmity toward facts has reignited a debate about the appropriate relationship between scholarship and civic engagement. Scientists know they’re losing ground, but they’re concerned that activism involving their work imperils the objectivity of research. So do we continue to keep our heads down, sticking to our laboratories? Or do we interact with the public, and advocate for policies based on sound science?

Well, tomorrow, we’re marching for science. Across the globe, scientists and supporters will gather to voice our support for data and empiricism. If you think that policy is too often governed by following the loudest voice in the room or by poll data — instead of being founded on hard data and rigorous studies — you should join us.

Some in the scientific community are choosing to sit this one out. Robert S. Young, an eminent geologist at Western Carolina University, has warned in The New York Times against demonstrating to get our point across. He writes that activism “while well intentioned, will serve only to trivialize and politicize the science we care so much about, turn scientists into another group caught up in the culture wars and further drive the wedge between scientists and a certain segment of the American electorate.” Young urges his fellow scientists toward direct outreach to public officials instead.

To my mind, Michael Eisen, a renowned evolutionary biologist at Berkeley, has the right idea. He is getting off the sidelines. He has registered the Twitter handle @SenatorPhD, declared his intention to run for the U.S. Senate in 2018, and made his campaign slogan: “Liberty, Equality, Reality.”

In another time, there might have been a case for leaving science in the lab. Yet this is no conventional time. I hope that many who gather in our nation’s capital on Saturday — and at the dozens of satellite marches around the rest of the country — will consider push beyond their comfort zones by stepping out to serve the country in an additional capacity. I hope they will consider running, as I did, to serve as a public official. Win or lose, we must, as both scientists and dedicated citizens, show friends, neighbors, and colleagues that we are on the side of truth, progress, and results.

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