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Science & Scientists in Politics

January 31, 2017

 

It’s been a full week with our new president and a radically different administration. Many things went down. Science and the way we conduct, communicate, and fund it feels under attack. Are you considering becoming more politically active in the professional realm of your life?

 

Chelsea: Yes! I think launching this website was a huge step towards wearing my politics proudly in my work life. In the days since we went public, I got a little panicky realizing that I had declared my queerness to the internet. Yeah, sure, I’m out to most everyone I interact with on a daily basis, but I’ve largely controlled who knew and who didn’t. Now we’re in a totally different era. My fierce love for others and the environment has to be front and center in what I do. Needless to say, I’ve been writing a lot these days. I’m excited to launch some of these writing projects in the coming weeks.

 

Julie: How could I not consider venturing into political activism after this past week? I admit, it has taken me too long to get to this point. I have sat from a place of privilege and comfort, and while I am in support of the struggles of minority, immigrant, and queer communities and recognize and fret about the many issues surrounding climate change, I have done very little outside of social media engagement. I am one of those nice white ladies referred to in Women’s March signs. I’m ready to jump in. The question is how. How can I be most effective in the the rural, white state that I live in? Getting involved in local organizations and political parties will be my first step.

 

That’s a great question Julie-- how do we jump into this moment and show up for our local and national communities? Are you new to participating in the political process?

 

Erin: I’ve been engaged in political activism peripherally for many years through assembly meetings to promote inclusiveness in my hometown and “get out the vote” events. However, starting summer 2016 with the deaths of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and others, I felt the need to take a more active role. I started participating in Standing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) events to find ways to reach out, stand up for, and provide a signal boost for marginalized members in my community. Since the election in November I have also felt motivated to engage further in protests related to our constitutional rights. I’m certainly still learning the ropes, and feel uncomfortable at times in these public spaces. I know that I'm likely to make mistakes or alienate people along the way, despite my best intentions. I hope that others who feel uncomfortable speaking up find ways to do so. Find a local SURJ chapter or activism group you identify with in your community. Go to a meeting. Talk to others and find your voice. This is the way we come together, and this is the way we take action and make progress.

 

Mallory: As an undergraduate I dabbled in environmental activism. As a graduate student, while I kept myself relatively informed on social justice issues, I admit to hunkering down in my small and comfortable research bubble. As a postdoc, my priorities have shifted. This is in part due to 1) experiencing first hand the challenges of being a woman of science, and 2) recognizing my role in the future of science.  

 

I believe activism can take multiple forms, and I believe that science can be used to better humanity. I applaud scientists running for political office and support the 2018 senate campaign of geneticist Michael Eisen. For me, activism right now means contributing to the conversation about diversity and inclusion. I’m co-organizing a seminar that aims to educate and implement best practices for fostering and sustaining a more diverse scientific community. Progress is made by each of us using our skills, privilege, and positions to do better for others.

 

Well said Mallory. Many people think scientists have a skill set that lends itself well to being in political office. What do you make of the efforts to get more scientists into political office?

 

Julie: We’re scientists because we’re curious problem solvers that have a passion for getting into the nitty gritty of a question.  Such characteristics would make a great civil servant, and quite frankly I’m surprised that there aren’t more scientists-turned-politicians.  It’s about time that scientists entered the political sphere.   

 

Erin: I’m excited by increasing the number of scientists running for political office. I’m hopeful that this will bring voices to the political table that champion evidence-based reasoning. While in some ways these efforts seem “a day late and a dollar short,” it has unfortunately taken a President who does not believe in facts to motivate this movement. Toward this effort, I hope that scientists will not only run for office, but continue to reach out to their communities and elected officials to stress the importance of data and science in making policy decisions.

 

And what do you have to say to the pushback that scientists should stick to science?

 

Julie: A common belief among scientists is that expressing one’s political viewpoint puts one’s scientific integrity into question. Such beliefs have silenced an intelligent, well informed population for too long.  As individuals and citizens, of course we have political views.  But our science informs our politics, not the other way around.  

 

Mallory: Science is political; science is activism. Scientists often elevate research above politics and society. Sure, basic facts are apolitical; protein A interacts with protein B. Yet, science itself is inescapably fused with human culture. Historically, science has been used to support racism (e.g. phrenology) or to justify horrific research practices. I argue that we must continue to peel back layers of biases. For instance, men outnumber women in academic faculty positions, and women scientists earn less and receive less funding than men (Shen, 2013 ). Women are also underrepresented in science publications (Lerback and Hanson, 2017). What downstream effects do these biases impose?

 

Chelsea: I agree with Mallory that science is political. Elizabeth Lopatto said it well in her article over at The Verge-- “science is the pursuit of knowledge, knowledge is power, and power is politics.” I also think science occupies a very powerful position in our culture (deservedly, it’s an incredible tool). When it’s “under attack” I think we as scientists need to reflect on how much of our response is driven by our ego. Are we acknowledging the tangential ways to build knowledge as valid in our society? And are we recognizing science’s troubled history, like Mallory notes?


Science’s strength lies in the revisionist and iterative process. I hope that any scientist who chooses to step into the political realm holds this idea close. We aren’t perfect, we don’t have all the answers, but we will work to deliver the dispassionate analysis of our data.

 

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