We are on the verge of something big. Scientists as a group are politically engaged like never before. They are communicating with decisionmakers, ready to march, and ready to run for office. The March for Science—an event that formed organically by a few enthusiastic people on Reddit and snowballed from there—is slated to be the largest demonstration for science that this country has ever seen. I’ve personally been blown away by the unprecedented support for scientists in the streets.
But let’s not mess this up. Some have not been pleased with how the March organizers handled diversity thus far. The March for Science organizers initially failed to include diversity within its scope and claimed that the event wasn’t “political” and that it was about the science, not scientists. Several twitter fumbles later, it is clear that the organization has been struggling with how to handle diversity and intersectionality and how to manage the differing interests of its supporters and critics. (Dr Zuleyka Zevallos does an excellent play-by-play and take here). The March for Science twitter account had an encouraging thread yesterday addressing diversity, inclusion, and harassment. Let’s keep going.
This is an important discussion. I hope the Science March organizers continue to listen and respond to constructive criticism from scientists of color, scientists with disabilities, and others who feel excluded by the movement. As participants in the march and in the broader movement for science, all of us can and must play a role in lifting these voices, standing in solidarity with our fellow scientists, and rejecting the idea that science is somehow value-free.
Science is driven by values and politics
Science isn’t partisan, but it is political and it always has been. For anyone who values science and scientific thinking, it is tempting to believe that facts will speak for themselves and that the practice and use of science will prevail above politics, discrimination, and hate. But this has never been the case.
History shows us that who has access to science, what questions are asked, and how science is used have always had political dimensions. Early scientists butted heads with the religious establishment. And who were most early scientists? Any mainstream history book will tell you that this was mostly white men. And that’s the first problem: Because of who controls history books, the history we hear about tends to focus on white male Europeans. And just as important, access to science was largely unattainable for others, and those that did break though often didn’t get credit for their work. You may have seen the recently resurfaced story of 19th-century Irish doctor Margaret Ann Bulkley, who became James Barry, concealing her born gender for 56 years in order to practice medicine.
Moreover, we know science isn’t always used for good. And we needn’t go back to Nazi Germany to find examples of this. Forced sterilization in the eugenics movement didn’t end until the 1970s in some places. The siting of industrial facilities in African American neighborhoods without first assessing health and safety risks continues to happen, and the unsafe chemical exposure of crop workers—more than 80 percent of whom identify themselves as Hispanic—has been well documented. These things are happening today. This dark side of science means that we cannot ignore the politics of how science is used and misused.
The centrality of diversity in science
A tremendous amount of the scientific progress made in this country is made by non-Americans and non-whites. I witnessed this first hand. In graduate school, my engineering program was overwhelmingly non-white and non-American. It meant we could all perform better for it—sharing different perspectives, techniques, and ideas. Science requires creativity, collaboration, and perseverance. The whole process works better when you have a diverse group of scientists to help brainstorm, troubleshoot, and solve tough problems. Science benefits from diversity.
But the scientists also benefit. On one occasion, I lamented to a classmate (who was in the US on a Fulbright Scholarship), that I hadn’t traveled. (My brother has mental disabilities that made traveling difficult for my family.) At the time, I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t traveled the world, experiencing other cultures. “You don’t need to,” he said. “Look around. You are experiencing diverse cultures right here.” He was right. To say that the science produced in this country includes diversity is an understatement. I got a scientific education and also a social and cultural one. And I’ve since visited my former classmates in their homes in Jordan, Turkey, and Colombia.
But it wasn’t at all a perfect melting pot. We were all given the same assignments, but my classmates of color, transgender classmates, and classmates with disabilities often carried a bigger load. I watched my friends and classmates face many barriers I didn’t have to—outright discrimination, language barriers, immigration and visa challenges, and police profiling, to name a few. Their success and progress in graduate school was more challenging because of these factors. Yet most persevered, and I owe my own success to the help and friendship of these classmates.
In fact, the success of my whole department depended on the success of its diverse student body. In this space it was clear to me just how central diversity is for science. We all have a role in helping others succeed in science. We must support our fellow scientists and work incessantly to eliminate the institutional barriers that have long restricted access to science to a privileged few.
Threats to marginalized groups are threats to science and scientists
Within the scientific community, much attention has focused on the looming threats of massive budget cuts to public science funding and science-based federal agencies. But many intersectional threats also loom large, and they have everything to do with the future of science and scientists.
Cuts to healthcare, public educational programs, Pell grants, and so much more will disproportionately affect low-income people and people of color. As Union of Concerned Scientists president Ken Kimmell recently said at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, these threats will do more to adversely affect potential future scientists than anything else.
Threats have consequences
The racist, misogynistic, able-ist and xenophobic actions of our new presidential administration have made many feel unsafe. The scientific community has felt this too. And unfortunately, a fear of violence isn’t unfounded.
On February 22, two Indian men, engineers at Garmin, were attacked in a Kansas restaurant by a white man yelling “Get out of my country.” One of the men, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, died from his injuries. This and other similar events compounded the feelings of many non-white Americans of not being welcome or safe in their own country.
Importantly, these threats are now happening on top of everything else that many scientists in marginalized groups are already facing. The scientific community has continued to struggle with addressing institutional racism, sexism, ableism, and religious discrimination. The recent escalation in violence against people of color by police has had a profound impact on the nation and the ability of scientists of color to do their work. By the way, the number of people killed by police has continued at 2016’s alarming rates in the past two months, despite fewer headlines.
The movement for science must be unapologetically inclusive
Many are new to conversations on equity and inclusion in science, this is evolving understanding. The March for Science and the broader movement for science are huge opportunities to introduce people to the significance and centrality of these issues to the present and future of the scientific enterprise they care so much about. Some of us have the luxury of not being confronted with these issues daily, but that’s why we mustn’t be complicit. We can’t sit on the sidelines.
If you are new to this conversation, there are many places to get you started. You might be interested in UCS’ recent webinar on Integrating Social Justice in Science with Yvette Arellano, research fellow at Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS); Navina Khanna, director, HEAL Food Alliance; and Michele Roberts, co-director, Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform. Showing Up for Racial Justice has several resources available for getting started as well. And follow the conversation at #marginsci to learn about the concerns that many scientists have around the March for Science.
We need to do better. Dialogue is important. Calling out missteps when we see them is crucial. As scientists and organizers, we must remember to listen, respond in earnest, and elevate messages of those marginalized or excluded. This is what makes a good ally. Indeed, this is what makes a good scientist.