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A nerd goes to Washington

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The rain pounded us and we slipped in the mud.  When I held up the protest sign, the cold water poured down my sleeve and ran all the way down to my socks.  I nibbled on a soggy sandwich and asked myself why the heck I was standing here.  Why did I spend the last two months planning and organizing buses to take students and Swarthmore community members to the March for Science?  Why was I standing in the rain in a distant city with a plastic sign scrawled in Sharpie? The answer, for me, was fear and hope.

Fear.

I’m scared.  I just lectured in Bio 2 (our introductory biology course) on extinction rates and global warming.  I went to the scientific literature, preparing to write my lecture for Bio 2 from scratch with an open mind.  Even without global warming, the outlook is bleak as a result of environmental destruction.  Add in global warming, and we really are on the precipice of a sixth mass extinction, one that could surpass the extinction that killed the dinosaurs.  Let that sink in for a moment. Humans are killing off species at a faster rate than the extinction triggered by a six-mile-wide asteroid.

And yet, we can’t even get the people in power to listen to facts.  Climate change is a problem, vaccines save lives and do not cause autism; these are facts that are scientifically verified, tested, retested, and yet the current administration and many in Congress act as if these are debatable and subjective ideas. The solutions are complicated and we need people of all perspectives working on smart answers that solve the biological problems while also doing it in a fair and socially just manner.  The political conversation should be about how to deal with these problems, not about the fundamental scientific facts.  For me, one of the main messages of the March was a plea for rational, fact-based decision-making from our government.

I’m a nerd, and perhaps I’ve read too much dystopian science fiction, but my inner Orwell tells me to be very worried.  I shouldn’t have been surprised when the current administration put a gag order on our scientific agencies, but I still reeled from the news. When governments hide the truth, it is never a good sign.  Government scientists dedicate their careers to serving our country through their knowledge and expertise of the natural world.  We need to know what they are discovering and how it could impact our country.  Our tax dollars pay their salaries and now they aren’t even allowed to tell us what they are finding. The recent proposed budget cuts to scientific agencies are also terrifying. Cutting the budget of the National Institutes of Health by 18 percent will slow the development of the cure for cancer.  Gutting the EPA will keep us from understanding the effects of fracking on drinking water.  How can we stop global warming if the Department of Energy’s research into alternative fuels is cut by 44 percent?  How are the science students I’m training going to find jobs if research is no longer a national priority?

And so, I asked the local chapter of Sigma Xi for funding, emailed bus companies, bought all the rain ponchos at Target, hung up posters, and stood in the mud because I am afraid of the future of science and of our democracy.

Hope.

I love science.  I love the nerdy facts, the awkward people, and the goofy fun that happens when people spend hours and hours to help each other add one more number to a spreadsheet just to answer a rudimentary question.  I love the excitement people get when they discover something new, no matter how small.  I love that scientists gasp out loud when beautifully elegant results are unveiled at a conference.  I have hope that if we are smart enough and loud enough and if scientists can effectively share our love of discovery with the public, we can actually save the world.

I hope that the energy generated by the March for Science and similar acts of resistance inspires students to spend their lives making a lasting impact.  Swarthmore students go on to do great things.  One of the speakers at the podium was Christiana Figueres, an architect of the 2015 Paris Agreement and the previous Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. She was also a Swarthmore anthropology major who graduated in 1979.

I hope that the March for Science gets more Swarthmore students to vote.  In the 2012 Presidential election only 46.7% of Swarthmore students voted, less than the average of similar schools.  If there is one thing that should motivate Swarthmore students, it should be avoiding getting an F, even for voter turnout.  Come on! The issues surrounding the March for Science are important. They require everyone to pay attention and make informed choices about who is granted power. And it’s not enough to show up only for national races; we should be packing the polling stations for local elections too.

I hope that once finals are over (or maybe during reading week), students call or write to their local leaders.  I hope they can find common ground with those with whom they usually disagree.  Perhaps enough letters will convince a senator that science is good for jobs, good for democracy, and good for our health.  This weekend (while writing my final) I am going to write Senator Toomey and lay out why funding the NIH is important for the economy of Philadelphia.  This is not because the economy is necessarily my most pressing concern, but because I think it is a subject where there is common ground between us.

I also Marched for Science because I am hopeful we can make science into the universal enterprise it should be.  At the March, there were signs that read “science is universal” and “science is for everyone.” Although this should be true, science is hardly universal; billions of people don’t have access to the findings of science, its beneficial products, or even the chance to get a basic education in science.  We still have serious biases in our hiring and publishing practices. Systems of privilege and differences in economic opportunities to continue make success in science an uphill battle for many.  When the March for Science was announced, these problems came to the fore and forced the community to publicly address them.  The March organizers drafted principles of diversity, acknowledging that science is struggling with its own internal troubles even as we protest against science deniers. And there were hints of change at the March that gave me hope that we will make science better. Many people carried signs celebrating the contributions of scientists who have been ignored because of their identity, others proudly claimed their own identities on shirts and signs, and conversations on Twitter and Facebook coalesced around solutions for greater inclusion and outreach to the underserved.

This is not to say we won’t be discouraged. Even small acts, like organizing buses for a march can wear you down.  Many more people signed up for the buses than showed up at 6 am on the rainy day of the march.  I began to get discouraged, and then I tripped over a small child.  One of the faculty and her partner had brought their son, a self-reported 5 and 1/3 year old. I asked him why he was here.  He replied, “I want to be a biolologist when I grow up.” That did it.  I packed away my frustration and decided to be hopeful.  Hopeful that we can make the world a place where there are enough species left for him to study, hopeful that his findings won’t be censored, hopeful that his leaders will make fact-based policies, hopeful that science will be well funded, and hopeful that when he is a biolologist, science will be an inclusive enterprise where everyone is welcome.

References

Current administration puts a gag order on scientific agencies

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/24/epa-department-agriculture-social-media-gag-order-trump

Proposed Budget cuts to scientific agencies

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/03/trumps-first-budget-analysis-and-reaction

Principles for diversity at the Science March

https://www.marchforscience.com/diversity-principles/

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