What Civically Engaged Science Can Look Like: Our Work Doesn’t End With Elections

October 29, 2020
Alex Antoniadis/Unsplash
Priya Shukla

This piece was originally posted on the COMPASS blog.

The 2020 Presidential election is occurring within a context unlike any other. Over the past few months, the U.S. has experienced unprecedented wildfire and hurricane seasons, threatening communities and ecosystems across the country. And, looming over this election is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that predominantly impacts communities of color. As the current administration continues to downplay these environmental and public health crises, it is more critical than ever that scientists (and other experts) provide the leadership we are currently lacking.

As the 2020 cohort of the Scientist Sentinels: Civic Engagement & Leadership Program, we have been deeply engaged in passionate conversations over the past year about our responsibilities as scientists and the role of science in society. We believe that science-informed actions are key to reigning in both the national coronavirus outbreak and the impacts of climate change. Equally, to ensure that we respond equitably, we must address the social injustices embedded in our societal and professional institutions.

We live in a democracy with government for the people, by the people. Everyone’s voice matters. Every vote matters. However, we would be remiss if we did not recognize that our voting system is inequitable — where it empowers some, it disenfranchises others. Nevertheless, scientists have important roles to play. Here we provide three key civic engagement opportunities for scientists:

1. Vote

Ensuring that national leadership has the capacity to address these climate- and pandemic-driven public health crises is paramount. One key way to do this is to cast our ballots before or on Election Day. Doing so will not only influence the outcome of these present issues, but future concerns as well.

Federal elections can determine how science is funded, regulated and presented to the voting public. Even down-ballot elections and ballot measures can fund scientific research that has actionable outcomes. However, local elections may more directly impact a voter’s daily life compared to federal/presidential elections. Voting for city council members and the state legislature matters, but so does voting during primary elections. It is important to remember that, barring any special elections, we should be casting our ballots every 2 years, not just when they overlap with a presidential election.

2. Create opportunities for your community to vote

Voting is a precious privilege, that many are excluded from. There are myriad disparities in voting opportunities, not only because of systemic issues, such as active voter suppression, gerrymandering, and corporate lobbying, but also due to practical challenges. For example, voting can be difficult to access because disabilities require extra planning, or its occurrence on a Tuesday may require taking time off work, or voting in person may increase exposure to

COVID-19.

But, as scientists, we have the capacity to make voting more accessible. PIs and project leads can provide their students and staff with time off to cast their ballots. Colleagues can offer to monitor experiments and run assays while their compatriots vote. Professors and teaching assistants can remind students of their voting options. And, we can encourage our institutions to improve access to polling stations and ballot deposit boxes both for scientists and also for local community members.

Those of us that can vote readily should do so, while remembering that the outcome of our vote will not benefit all communities in the same way.

3. Find ways to engage after you vote

None of the issues we have mentioned will be resolved simply by voting. After the election is over, scientists must commit our expertise to help local causes and communities where our work can have a positive impact. Building trust within these communities as scientists takes time and energy beyond a single election cycle. However, doing so requires understanding the needs of the community you are serving and how science can be responsibly implemented; thus it is important to simultaneously center the voices of that community, while ensuring that your efforts are respectful of its history and culture.

As Scientist Sentinels, we are collectively devoted to community-engagement; we embrace lending our expertise to those who stand to benefit from it most. And, many of us are members of the communities we serve — thus we are well-positioned to conduct science conscientiously. In turn, our science is improved by integrating the perspectives of these communities. You can learn more about the ongoing work of the Sentinels here.

Ultimately, the mere act of doing your science could be the strongest and most advantageous manifestation of civic engagement, especially if it is a grounded effort that extends beyond any single election.