Standing Up for Science: Notes from the Field

February 1, 2017 | 3:16 pm
Juliet Christian-Smith
Western States Regional Director

The February issue of San Francisco Magazine on shelves today is titled “Resistance,” and features stories of politicians, lawyers, activists…even scientists who are involved in challenging some of the early actions of the Trump administration. My colleague, Jimmy O’Dea, and I are both featured with other scientists who attended the December meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). With approximately 24,000 attendees, AGU’s annual meeting is the largest Earth and space science meeting in the world — but the 2016 conference was different. Faced with an incoming administration that has demonstrated disrespect for science and denial of climate change, hundreds of the scientists left the meeting halls to protest on the streets.

Below, are the interview questions sent to me by San Francisco Magazine (in italics) and my responses:

What specifically inspired you to take action and protest?

I was at AGU to present my research on the impact of climate change on California’s groundwater. I was approached by a fellow scientist who was passing out fliers about the protest. I was immediately intrigued. I have been to several AGU conferences over the years and I have never seen any kind of protest take place.

As my colleague, Peter Frumhoff, who spoke at the protest stated: “Science and evidence is at risk. It is on us to ensure it is protected.” In my lifetime, I have never seen the scientific community as politically organized as it is now. Scientists are rightfully concerned about what it means to live and work in a “post-truth” or “post-science” society.

I think people rarely think of scientists as politically active in that way…tell me why that is a misconception.

Scientists are typically focused on researching specific, technical questions, but in almost all cases these questions are connected to public policy in one way or another. Scientists care deeply when research, facts, and evidence are misstated or ignored. That’s actually what led to the creation of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

In 1969, scientists and students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were concerned about the misuse of science by the U.S. government. Senior faculty members, including the heads of the biology, chemistry, and physics departments, drafted a statement calling for scientific research to be directed away from military technologies and toward solving pressing environmental and social problems.

The statement began: “Misuse of scientific and technical knowledge presents a major threat to the existence of mankind…The concerned majority has been on the sidelines and ineffective. We feel that it is no longer possible to remain uninvolved.” We remain true to that founding vision. The Union of Concerned Scientists has followed the example set by the scientific community: we share information, seek the truth, and let our findings guide our conclusions.

What are some of your biggest concerns/political flash points concerning the forthcoming Trump administration?

My biggest concerns revolve around transparency and democracy. As a single party takes the presidency and both houses of Congress, the normal oversight system of checks and balances is weakened, as evidenced by the recent attempt to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics.

Watchdogs  like non-profit organizations and journalists will take on an even more important role in holding the incoming administration accountable. Transparency is a key ingredient to build accountability and trust, which are necessary for the functioning of democracies and market economies.

Are you planning on taking future action in response to the Trump administration? Anything specific planned?

My hope would be that we can find constructive ways to work with the administration, though I am very concerned about some of the early statements and proposed appointments that point to a lack of understanding of the role, principles, and practices of science.

Responding to the misuse of science is in the very DNA of the Union of Concerned Scientists. The Union of Concerned Scientists was formed during a time of political upheaval, it was founded by people who believed that the ethical use of science and knowledge could help build a better and safer world.

It is more important now than ever for scientists and citizens to work together, engage in our democratic processes, and push for reforms to ensure that our policies are informed by science and evidence – our Center for Science and Democracy was specifically established to advance these goals. Together, we will continue to stand up for science.