Saturday, April 22, 2017

Why this scientist is marching

"Science is real" and "Objective reality exists" read the signs that covered Jessie Square in San Francisco last December. "Immigrants make science great" read some at Boston's Copley Square in February.

An unlikely sector of the populace has begun to respond to the threat that the Trump agenda represents. Earth Day, April 22, has been called as a day of action for all of us who want to defend academic freedom, public health and the human habitability of the planet itself.

A few scientists were inspired by the January 21 women's marches that drew millions out in cities across the U.S. and began posting messages on Facebook that maybe those protesting were onto something. Maybe protest was the best way to defend ourselves against the anti-science agenda rolling out of D.C. And on January 22, scientists weren't merely onlookers. A contingent of hundreds of women and men in lab coats (some carrying their lab equipment) produced some of the loudest chants that day in Washington, D.C.

Why are science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) advocates so mad? What could possibly make us leave our microscopes and spectrometers en mass to engage in the political sphere?

Setting aside the fact that "STEMinist" T-shirts are selling like hotcakes and a huge proportion of STEM professionals are women, immigrants and LGBTQ people, scientists are mad because of, essentially, workplace grievances. In theory, the purpose of science is to understand the world so we can make positive change, but scientists cannot do this if we are unable to communicate our findings. And the current administration is not a fan of evidence-based peer-reviewed information being "leaked" to the public.

According to the Associated Press, political appointees of the current administration have been directed to review all studies and data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prior to public release. "Review," in this case, will mean censorship. The current EPA scientific integrity statement reads that actions be "grounded, at a most fundamental level, in sound, high-quality science" that is "free from political interference." Clearly, this integrity can no longer be maintained without threat to one's career.

Even an agency as innocuous as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may be subject to political pressure. The FDA is the agency that ensures that our pills aren't going to make the cure worse than the disease. Before some federal oversight of our medications, drugs could have deadly side effects or be tainted with dangerous additives. Scott Gottlieb, Trump's candidate to head up the FDA, has suggested that rigorous clinical trials shouldn't be required for placing a drug on the market. Let the consumer decide if it is deadly--or, at least, their living relatives.

I AM marching on April 22 because, like other scientists, I'm mad about this. Like other scientists, I'm scared about this. And, like other scientists, I am determined to fight back.

I want to be counted among the people who are trying to send a message to the Trump administration that it should not cut public funding for science censor or restrict the communication of scientific findings or; ignore the scientific consensus in making policy.

But I also have other, more specific, reasons to march.

I am a teacher. Anyone who has ever taught, or even had a favorite teacher, knows the way teachers can care about their students. You become invested in how they feel, how well you help them get what they want in life. My task is to give them information, but much more importantly, to give them motivation and a method for exploring the natural world (I'm a biologist). And now, the same students I most inspired are the ones who won't have jobs--the students who wanted to study public health, the students who wanted to preserve endangered species, the students who wanted clean water. I work in the classroom to help them achieve this goal, why not also in the streets?

I am an anti-racist. Cuts to programs that protect the environment don't just affect all people equally. The lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, is the most recent well-known example, but the list goes on and on. It includes coal ash in Uniontown, Alabama; lead in West Dallas, Texas; and toxic polychlorinated biphenyls in Warren County, North Carolina. Environmental destruction disproportionately impacts communities of color.

The beginning of any struggle against environmental racism is to prove that the damage is happening. With severe cuts to the EPA, the routine monitoring will not happen. Say you smell oil as you walk by a creek on your way home from school. You call the city to report it, and they tell you to call the EPA. But no one is there to pick up the phone--they were all fired by the Trump administration.

There are also likely to be cuts in federal health-monitoring programs. Those who work on those programs study things like why, unlike the global trend, more and more mothers are dying during childbirth in the U.S. Just like many other health disparities, these women are disproportionately low-income and Black. The Trump administration doesn't want to fund the studies that help us know this, much less the programs to help us stop it.

I am a socialist. I believe that mass social movements can win big reforms. Scientists were an important part of the original mobilizations that led Richard Nixon to create the EPA in the first place. And the experience of fighting for something well beyond laboratory funding made a more healthy, left-wing science.

When scientists sit back and let the "experts" handle the politics, we are in trouble. Ordinary people mobilizing--that's what can win.

I expect that very few scientists voted for Trump. I imagine that almost all of the participants in the upcoming March for Science think we wouldn't need to march if Hillary Clinton had won.

But as scientists, we also call for evidenced-based policy--and there's not a lot of evidence that the Democrats in power have responded seriously to things like the life-or-death situation around climate change. Bernie Sanders called out the inaction, why can't we?

So I'm marching as part of an argument both for science and with science. We should have a grassroots movement that is independent and self-reliant. Only then will we be able to pressure any and all politicians to enact the immediate change that's so badly needed.

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