I cross the Mississippi River between Davenport, Iowa and Rock Island, Illinois almost daily. During the winter months, I’m thankful when the stoplight across the bridge turns yellow, then changes to red, giving me time to count the many eagles nesting and fishing along the slough by the lock and dam.
That any of these eagles are here today is testament to the research of Rachel Carson, an ecologist whose public science shaped the course of policy and inspired the birth of the environmental movement in the United States.
As scientists, we are well trained in the process of conducting scientific research, but most of us have fewer teachers when it comes to engaging in the process of applying that research to public action or policy. Carson’s work continues to teach us how science can be a transformative tool; one that can change our course from extinction, pollution, and harm to one of regeneration.
Recent debate over whether scientists should engage in political action stems from a debate that Carson knew a lot about: science as a public good.
To march or not to march: what is the question?
A March for Science is planned on April 22—Earth Day—in Washington DC and (to date) in 323 communities across the globe. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Robert Young sparked a lot of debate on scientific listservs and in academic hallways across the country about the role of scientists in the public realm.
From this debate emerges the expected chorus of those worried about losing their status asking “Is this the right time? Is this our role?”
These questions are usually followed by the strange claim that our actions, inspired by scientific questions to which we’ve devoted our lives to studying—climate change, environmental racism, public health, and on—may (insert theme from Jaws here)….POLITICIZE SCIENCE!
Private and partisan interests have already politicized science. Our concern today should instead be how we reclaim science as public good. That is a political concern, but need not be a partisan one.
The politicization of science
In his op-ed, Young claimed that Al Gore is responsible for “politicizing” the science of climate change in the United States through his production of An Inconvenient Truth in 2006. However, sociologists Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap document that the politicization of climate change in the U.S. happened much earlier than 2006 and that it was not because of well-intentioned documentaries; rather, it was due to the strategic work of the George W. Bush administration on behalf of private interests.
This is not a new story. Silent Spring was published 55 years ago, yet the agricultural industry continues to try to tarnish Rachel Carson’s reputation. More recently, we see this continued bullying and silencing of scientists in Syngenta’s attempted defamation of Tyrone Hayes, the North Carolina Pork Council’s threats toward the late Steve Wing, or Rush Limbaugh and the religious right’s personal attacks on Kari Norgaard for her research studying climate change denial.
Our country has a long history of industry and special interest groups, and their political advocates, attacking scientists for “doing science” when it doesn’t support their profit making. It is important to differentiate though that these examples are not the fault of scientists “politicizing” science, but of industry and politicians politicizing and manipulating science. It is on us to take it back.
Reclaiming science as a public good
The eagles nesting along the Mississippi River are here because a scientist took a risk and engaged with the public.
I agree with Young when he argues that this engagement begins at the local levels. This engagement with the public—and political—realm can be frightening and comes with consequences, as confronting privilege often does, but we must do this hard work if we want a future for our disciplines, our loved ones, and our planet. We already have some of the tools we need: we are trained to manage and account for the uncertainty that comes with engaging the unknown. We now need to begin to employ the critical and creative parts of the scientific process as we experiment with new venues, new messaging, and varied approaches to sharing and advocating for science that is much needed by the public.
Sandra Steingraber often uses the metaphor of the symphony to describe the situation we now find ourselves in: we are each musicians being called to play our instruments as best we can in order to save the world. The imperative for those of us housed in institutions of higher education to play our part is especially important, as Bard College president Leon Botstein recently wrote, not only for science, but for democracy itself. We are citizens, too, and now, more than ever, scientists are needed to play our part.
March for public science. Advocate for more funding and institutional support for public science. Engage in public science partnerships with community groups and policy makers. If you’re so inspired, please run for office. Remain transparent because we do not have anything to hide. It is okay and good to love the work we do, and to share that we do it because we love our families, our homes, and our planet. We won’t all be successful, but we’ve been trained for that, too: revise, resubmit, revise again. Here’s to seeing you in the streets, at the city council meeting; to reading your letters to the editor; to hearing your voices at the legislative forums and at the rallies. Science is a public good—let’s put it into practice.