Science Activism After Trump

June 15, 2021
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Dana R. Fisher
Professor of Sociology, University of Maryland

Roughly three years ago, Scott Frickel and I wrote about science activism during the Age of Trump. The piece focused on the ways that Americans – many of whom were scientists themselves – were turning out in support of science. We concluded our piece by noting “the power of getting scientists out of their labs. Keeping them engaged in politics can only heighten their influence on issues from climate change to space exploration and beyond.”

Since Joe Biden took office in January, the new Administration has substantially changed how the US government is engaging with science. Instead of rejecting scientific consensus around wearing masks, getting vaccinated, or addressing the climate crisis, the Biden Administration is working to implement aggressive policies that follow the science. While the new President and his team have shown a lot of support for science, science activism and advocacy persists. Based on the results of two waves of surveys with members of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ (UCS) Science Network, there is strong evidence that science advocates continue to be very politically engaged:  94% voted in the 2020 election. Moreover, the Science Network has grown by 20% since Joe Biden was elected President in November, gaining more than 3,000 new supporters.

As this network of science activists continues to grow and the Administration pushes to implement an agenda that is informed by science, what are the most effective ways to advocate for science moving forward?

There is little doubt that science advocacy and activism will be helpful to the Administration as it works to implement a national climate policy that responds to the warnings from the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Not only do members of the Science Network identify climate change as their top issue, but their advocacy and activism would be extremely valuable to the Biden Administration as it struggles to follow through on the President’s campaign promise to “enact the most aggressive climate agenda in history.”

Although there have been a number of recent successes for the climate, including some wins against big fossil fuel companies, fears are growing that the Biden Administration is considering watering down its climate plans. At this point, the future of the American Jobs Plan, which aims to get Americans back to work while addressing the climate crisis, is uncertain.

Science advocates are particularly well suited to support the climate provisions in the Plan by mobilizing their networks to apply pressure to Senators in key states to support the bill. Moreover, they can join with other climate activists who are mobilizing around the Biden Administration’s efforts to pass a clean electricity standard, as well as the many other efforts to keep pushing the Administration to follow through on its climate-related campaign promises. 

Beyond supporting a national climate agenda that is consistent with the science, there is a clear need for activism and advocacy at the state and local levels. Since the 2020 election, Republican lawmakers have been working to limit political participation by implementing voter restriction bills and passing policies that curtail peaceful protest in states across the US. These bills are a clear response to the activism that swept across the nation after George Floyd was murdered in May 2020 along with indigenous-led protests that focus on projects that expand fossil fuel infrastructure.

These state-level attacks on democratic participation provide another opportunity for science enthusiasts to engage in activism and advocacy. Not only will these efforts limit representation and participation, but they are likely to have broader effects on who gets elected and what policies those elected officials support. In response to these threats to democracy, the UCS Center for Science and Democracy is currently working on the Science for a Healthier Democracy campaign that is advocating for democracy reform and helping scientists and communities form productive partnerships to advance just, evidence-based solutions.

Part of this approach involves adopting a “distributed organizing” model that encourages building power at the state and local levels. As I write about in American Resistance, distributed organizing is a geographically distributed model that facilitates bottom-up engagement by taking advantage of digital connections to build capacity for social change. The distributed organizing model holds real promise for creating and sustaining networks of activists, but it is most successful when it complements personal connections and social ties rather than replacing them with digital ones.

These efforts by the UCS provide great first steps for mobilizing the science advocacy movement to support federal climate progress while also paying close attention to local and state-level efforts to attack democratic participation. The implications of these policies will have significant effects on politics and climate change at all levels of governance in the United States moving forward.