March for Science

This weekend's March for Science is making scientists question their relationship with issues outside the lab.

This Earth Day [April 22], groups of scientists and science advocates are organising across the world in a global March for Science to bring attention to the importance of scientific research. Activism is new for many within the scientific community and not everyone agrees that the march will be beneficial or effective.

Primary concerns about the march are that it may appear damagingly partisan or that calls advocating intersectionality are divisive and undercut the march’s message. Although there is no consensus among the scientific community regarding these issues, the march has forced scientists to confront issues outside of our labs and question our relationship with them.

At the University of Cambridge, where I am finishing my PhD, privilege shapes the university at all levels. To its credit, Cambridge is trying to address these issues, but many stem from broader social structures limiting university access to begin with. This became glaringly obvious when I compared myself to other Americans studying at Cambridge. Finding another Midwesterner is like trying to find a needle in a haystack of people from coastal urban areas, where opportunities are more plentiful. Finding another community college graduate or person from a small town (my hometown has a population of 9,000) is like finding a speck in the ocean. I don’t mean to undermine the privilege (white, male) I have, however. Friends of colour who are also students are often questioned if they ‘go here’, which is a confrontation I’ve never had.

Universities educate scientists and are where many establish careers. One can debate whether universities or politicians are more responsible for building bridges to help people from underprivileged backgrounds obtain scientific careers, but universities are where we can most easily influence change. More people of colour are getting PhDs than ever before, but disproportionately few hold permanent university positions. The reason that intersectionality or ‘identity politics’ needs to be a component to this march is because societal structures dictate that not everyone has the opportunity to become a scientist.

Outside academia, the closed-off approach we scientists take from our lab benches limits our influence over policy. Scientific consensus can sway governments on issues, but how to act on them requires an interdisciplinary approach, something 314Action, a group dedicated to getting more scientists in governmental positions, recognise. We need to make sure that scientists who engage in politics are not shunned from the scientific community. The current ‘publish or perish’ mentality and discrediting of non-academic public engagement for tenure actively discourage mobility outside the ivory tower. Many conservatives don’t believe in climate change and many lefties think vaccines cause autism. We’re failing at connecting with our communities, which explains this perception that we hide away in labs plotting to undermine society for our benefit. We look at our pay cheques and working conditions and laugh at this notion. Many people aren’t laughing, though, and we need to take their mistrust seriously.

The messages carried on placards during the march will test how effective efforts to promote inclusivity and scientific value were. After the march finishes, the next test will begin for the scientific community. We have been forced to confront social issues and have discussions about where we, as scientists, fit into the broader movement for global equality and justice. If scientists care about fostering the brightest minds and creating a true meritocracy, it is imperative that we recognise the disparity in opportunity available to a child growing up in Flint, Michigan vs. a Wall Street banker’s child and fight to close these gaps. It equally seems hypocritical to research cancer cures and ignore the policies that limit who can access your treatments.

These issues are not inherently partisan but have been dragged into partisan politics. To be sure, we must work across party lines to remind our representatives that science is an invaluable tool for tackling today’s most pressing issues.

As we can learn from the struggles of the feminist movement, if we do not also take time to reflect on how we can make science more welcoming to those who have been shunned, we cannot hope to successfully move forward.

*Collin VanBuren [2013] is doing a PhD in Earth Sciences. Picture credit: Wiki Commons.