The March for Science took place April 22 in locations all over the world — an exciting time for scientist-advocates and a proud moment for the global scientific community.
As we reflect on the March, we must also reflect on the fact that organization of the March on Science 2017 has been a microcosm of the structural, systemic challenges that scientists continue to face in addressing equity, access, and inclusion in the sciences.
Others have written eloquently regarding the steep learning curve that the March on Science Washington DC organizers faced in ensuring an inclusive and equitable March. The organizers’ initial missteps unleashed a backlash on social media, lambasting their failure to design a movement for all scientists and exhorting them to consider more deeply the ways in which science interacts with the varying experiences of language, race, economic status, ableness, gender, religion, ethnic identity, and national origin.
The March has taken steps to correct these initial missteps, correctly choosing to engage directly with the issue and consult with historically excluded scientists to better understand and examine the ways in which science interacts with the ongoing political reality of bias in society. It must be noted, however, that improvements like their new Diversity and Inclusion Principles, though an excellent initial step, still mask the unheralded efforts of multiple scientists of color to correct the narrative.
At the core of the controversy, and perhaps underlying its intellectual origins, is the popular fiction among scientists that Science can (or should) be apolitical.
Science is never apolitical.
It is, inherently, a system of gaining knowledge that has been devised by, refined by, practiced by, misused by, and even (at times) weaponized by human beings — and as human beings, we are inherently political.
Therefore science is not a completely neutral machine, functioning of its own volition and design; but rather a system with which we tinker and adjust; which we tune to one frequency or the other; and by dint of which we may or may not determine (or belatedly rationalize) the course of human action.
And so when we understand that science is not apolitical, we are freed to examine the biases, exclusions, and blind spots it may create — and then correct for them. In doing so, we can improve ourselves, broaden the inclusivity of our work (and potentially improve its usefulness and/or applicability), and advance the quest of scientific inquiry: to find the unwavering truths of the universe.
The March on Science organizers have come a long way in recognizing the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in science, but what comes next? How can scientists living in this current political moment engage in individual and collective action (hint: it’s not just about calling your representatives). What can we do?
- Study the history and culture of science. As scientists, we are natural explorers and inherently curious. We ought to direct some of that curiosity toward ourselves; toward better understanding where we come from, who we are, and why we think the way we do. Historians of science and those engaged in social study of science have demonstrated how science is a human enterprise, influenced by culture and politics of specific times and places. These studies have shown how blind spots — in language, in culture, in worldview, in political orientation—can change our results, skew our data, or put a foot on the scales of measurement. At times, these biases have caused great harm, and at others have been fairly benign—but these analyses together all point out how science is more robust for recognizing sociocultural impacts on its practice.
- Understand our own political reality, and seek to understand the realities of others. Take some time — even ten minutes a week — to ask yourself if your actions reflect your beliefs. What beliefs do you hold dear, both as a scientist and as a person? How do they influence the way you think about, study, and conduct science? What do you assume to be true about the world? How does that impact the way in which you frame your scientific questions? How does it influence the methods, study sites, or populations you choose? How does the political reality which you inhabit—and its associated privileges and problems—direct your attention, shape your questions, or draw you to one discipline or the other? What presumptions do you make about people, about systems, or about the planet itself? What do you do, think, or feel when your assumptions are challenged? How willing are you to be wrong?
- Open the discourse. Inclusive science won’t happen by accident—it will happen because we work to eliminate the sources of bias in our systems and structures that list the ship toward one side or the other. And the only way we can learn about these sources of bias is to (1) acknowledge their existence, then (2) begin to look for them. Talk to other scientists—at conferences, on Twitter, on Facebook, on reddit, on Snapchat, through email chains, through list-servs—any way you can. Listen for the differences in your perspectives and approaches. Ponder on the political reality from which they might originate. Ask questions, and genuinely want to hear (and accept) the answers. Then go back and reconsider the questions regarding your political reality and how you could now approach your science based on what you have learned of others. As a clear example, western science has consistently overlooked the already-learned lessons of indigenous science and disregarded the voiced experiences of indigenous researchers. Greater recognition of—and collaboration with—indigenous scientists has the potential to greatly speed and improve advances in our work. Opening the discourse is a first step toward ameliorating this deficit in our learning.
- Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. Reach out to scientists who do not look like you, do not speak your dialect, do not come from your country, do not share your values or religion, do not frame questions in the same way, and do not hold the same theories precious. Share equally in the experience of scientific discovery. Choose a journal that will assign multiple-first-authorships. Publish open-access if you can, and share directly if you can’t.
- Choose to include. Take responsibility at all stages—in the planning for science, the choosing of methods, the hiring of staff, the implementation—for creating strong, inclusive scientific teams and systems. Be aware of how your own political reality affect your scientific design, planning, or implementation. Check your unrecognized presumptions or biases. Challenge yourself to ask your question through a different lens or through different eyes. Choose to participate in the improvement and refinement of our shared scientific machine.
Ignoring politics doesn’t insulate us from it—if scientists want to be champions for knowledge, then we have to defend our practice from the human tendencies that threaten to unravel it—exclusion, tribalism, competition, and bias. Science can’t be apolitical, but it can be a better path to knowledge—so let’s make it happen.