Monday, February 20, 2017

2565. 'Science for the people': Researchers Challenge Trump Outside US Conference

By Hannah Delvin and Alan Yuhas, The Guardian, February 19, 2017
Members of the scientific community, environmental advocates, and supporters demonstrate on Sunday in Boston. Photograph: Steven Senne/AP

Hundreds of scientists rallied in Boston on Sunday to protest what they call the “direct attack” of Donald Trump and Republicans on research, scientific institutions and facts themselves, as a community reckons, and argues, with a new era of American politics.

Gathering in Boston’s Copley Square, outside the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), several scientists gave speeches to a crowd holding signs shaped like beakers and reading “Stand up for science”. The speeches reflected a sea change in the culture of many labs and universities, where many researchers long maintained that good scientific work could speak for itself.

At the AAAS conference, scientists this week have discussed political activism, the psychology of “fake news” , and how to protect climate science from hostile governments. But a rift has opened up in the community between those in favor and those opposed to rallies focused on science, including a March for Science planned across multiple cities in April.

Professor Jim Gates, the eminent string theorist and former adviser to Barack Obama, told journalists that the march appeared to lack an end goal – a prerequisite for political action – and would simply be perceived as “science against Trump”.

“At least as far as I can detect, there is no theory of action behind this,” he said. “This bothers me tremendously.

“I don’t understand how the organisers of this march can guard against provocateurs, quite frankly,” he added. “I don’t think they’re ready for that, I don’t think they’re considering that kind of danger. To have science represented as this political force I think is just extraordinarily dangerous.”

Others urged the protesters on, including Rush Holt, the CEO of AAAS, said that his organization would work with other US societies to “make the march a success”.

“It’s the first time in my 50-year career that I have seen people speaking up for science at large,” he said. “I’ve seen for or against nuclear power or whatever. This is an unusual phenomenon.”

Astrid Caldas, a climate scientist and member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that the rally showed that “scientists who are usually happy in the corner of their labs are speaking”.

“I think that scientists are realizing that they have to use their voice, as scientists, in self-defense.”

Dr Jacquelyn Gill, an ecologist at the University of Maine, was one of the speakers Sunday, and is tentatively considering whether to run for Congress in 2018.

“A lot of scientists are realizing that the institutions that fund and support and science in this country – science for everyone, publicly funded and transparent – those institutions are under direct attack,” she told the Guardian.

Trump, she said, “not only doesn’t value our institutions, he doesn’t seem to value evidence-based decision making at all. That is alarming to us.”

The president’s views about science – he has variously called global warming a “hoax” and pledged to “unlock the mysteries of space” – is not the only concern on the scientists’ minds. “I’m concerned that we’re going to lose the EPA. I’m concerned that we’re going to lose regulations that have a direct impact on human health, like automobile emissions,” Gill said. “People will get sicker. People will die because of a lack of environmental regulation and medical research.”

 Activists in Boston call attention to what they say are the increasing threats to science and scientific research under the administration of Donald Trump.

Beka Economopoulos, one of the rally’s organizers and a co-founder of the Natural History Museum, a mobile exhibition, said that scientists could no longer truly avoid politics. “That ship has sailed,” she said, noting that researchers have a long history protesting, for instance against nuclear proliferation in the 1970s.

“It’s not just about scientists, it’s about science,” she said. “Communities are going to bear the brunt of the impacts of these attacks on science in the public interest.”

Gill also stressed that the nascent movement wanted to stress “science for the people, by the people and for the people”.

Arguments about “trimming the fat” of budgets, she said, did not stand up to scrutiny, considering that the government’s science and medical research funding makes up a tiny percentage of the federal budget.

“That money has got one of the best returns on investment you could possibly hope for,” she said. “The real stakeholders are the citizens that stand to gain or lose the most if the institutions are weakened.”

Another organizer, Emily Southard, said that the rally and the march in Washington, were meant to help “demystify what scientists do”.

She defended “science that delivers clean, safe drinking water to our faucets, science that’s being taken for granted – and that’s the science that’s being taken under attack.”

Economopoulos used the Environmental Protection Agency as an example, criticizing its newly confirmed head, who repeatedly sued the agency in favor of corporations as Oklahoma attorney general . “We have a sort of fox in the henhouse situation here with Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA, an agency that he has sued 14 times,” she said.

Gill also said that researchers needed to do more to take control of their image, noting the ways scientists had been politicized by lawmakers in debates over climate science. “Throwing more information or more data doesn’t really change minds, whether it’s climate change or vaccines,” she said. “Empathy trumps fact when it comes to people’s minds.”

Such disputes were nothing new, she said: “Science and religion clashes go back to Darwin and Galileo and Copernicus.”

Caldas said that she hoped scientists would continue organize at local levels. “The federal government may not be on board, but local government works hardest with people who see these problems at their doorsteps, and they cannot deny it.”

Members of Congress facing re-election, she said, were already starting to feel pressure from constituents about climate change. “The stakes are really high but there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

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