TOPICS > Science > The Leading Edge

Scientists dive into the political fray

April 19, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
Is the scientific community finding its political voice? As the March for Science approaches, science correspondent Miles O’Brien meets with researchers who are venturing into the political fray to keep their profession alive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: Is the scientific community finding its political voice?

Science correspondent Miles O’Brien looks into what is behind street protests here staged by members of a profession not generally known for their activism.

It’s part of our weekly Leading Edge series.

WOMAN: Who is ready to stand up for science?


MILES O’BRIEN: They are scientists, and on this February Sunday in Boston, they were conducting an experiment they’d just as soon avoid.

Facing a White House that is pushing across-the-board steep cuts in federal science funding, they are taking to the streets. Their hypothesis? In order to keep their work alive, they must dive into the political fray.

GEOFFREY SUPRAN, MIT Scientist: Today, science fights back.


GEOFFREY SUPRAN: I think, scientists, it’s not in our natural nature to shout, to make a loud noise, but, apparently, we can do it when come together.

MILES O’BRIEN: Geoffrey Supran is a renewable energy modeler at MIT. He was there among a few hundred protesters in Copley Square, one of several protests staged by scientists since Donald Trump became president.

The administration has proposed double-digit cuts for the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Health, and a 20 percent across-the-board cut to research on climate change.

GEOFFREY SUPRAN: As scientists, it’s actually our responsibility, and as citizens, to warn the public when we see danger. You know, if you see something, say something. And we feel the civic duty.

MILES O’BRIEN: The protesters here hope this rally is merely a prelude to something much bigger, a march en masse in Washington and hundreds of other cities all over the world on April 22.

Kishore Hari is one of the organizers of the Earth Day events.

KISHORE HARI, March for Science: Science has been political since the time of Galileo. Nothing has changed between now and then. But it’s important that we are nonpartisan because this is a march for science, and that unifies everyone around the world.

MILES O’BRIEN: But the idea has drawn controversy from some scientists, who are concerned march organizers are also advocating a host of other liberal social causes.

The rally in Boston happened in the midst of the annual meeting of the largest scientific society in the world, the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The organization is supporting the political mobilization of many of its members.

Physicist and former Democratic Congressman Rush Holt is the CEO.

RUSH HOLT (D), Former U.S. Congressman: This would be — it’s purported to be a demonstration for science, the very idea of science, the essence of science. Isn’t that a wonderful idea?

NAOMI ORESKES, Harvard University: This rally isn’t about promoting a particular policy. It’s about promoting the idea that the scientific enterprise as a whole improves our lives.

MILES O’BRIEN: Naomi Oreskes is a scientist and a professor of the history of science at Harvard University. She has written extensively about the role of politics, special interests and science. For most of history, she says, scientists had to be politically and publicly engaged in order to fund their research.

But, in the U.S., that changed after World War II, when federal funding started flowing into laboratories.

NAOMI ORESKES: We lost the sense of a kind of civic obligation, or reciprocal obligation, that if we expect the taxpayer to pay for what we do, that we also should — that they have an expectation that we should be spending time explaining it.

And I think that breakdown, that reciprocal communication breakdown, has had real consequences in our lifetimes.

MILES O’BRIEN: During that same time, the political pushback against science grew, whether the realm was evolution, acid rain, the ozone hole, or climate change.

NAOMI ORESKES: The scientific community made a mistake in not taking that more seriously. And so now we’re in a situation where it’s become a crisis. And now the scientific community, I think, realizes that we have a very serious problem on our hands.

RUSH HOLT, CEO, AAAS: Scientists, as a rule, are not comfortable being out there politically, but we should. Putting science into politics and into society is something that they can do and should do, probably must do.

MILES O’BRIEN: Naomi Oreskes is writing a new book, science fiction that imagines a society that embraces climate change science and renewable energy.

Geoffrey Supran is helping her with this. After all, renewable energy is what his research is all about.

GEOFFREY SUPRAN, MIT Scientist: This is where we make next-generation LEDs and solar cells. It’s essentially a continuous vacuum facility.

MILES O’BRIEN: Supran was here in his lab at MIT when President Obama visited in 2009, leaving his autograph on a vacuum chamber used to make better solar cells and brighter LEDs.

He was sitting in the same place when it dawned on him and his colleagues that most of the technology to tackle climate change already exists, but the political will to do something doesn’t. He says, for his generation of scientists, that is a call to action.

GEOFFREY SUPRAN: There’s a cultural shift throughout that young people are, I’m proud to say, taking the lead, I think. And so we’re really starting to see the scientific community adjusting to the landscape and preparing itself better to deal with the political realities of today.

And if they don’t get it, let’s run for office and vote them out.


MILES O’BRIEN: Some scientists are hoping to do just that.

MAN: Shaughnessy, tell us a little bit about today.

WOMAN: Today, we had our first candidate training for scientists who are thinking about running for office.

MILES O’BRIEN: A science advocacy group called 314 Action, which is encouraging scientists to run, says 3,000 have signed up for its candidate training program. 314 Action has some 101-level political how-to videos to help them take the leap out of the lab.

TRACY VAN HOUTEN, Jet Propulsion Laboratory: Hi, Heather. This is Tracy Van Houten, and I’m the aerospace engineer who is running for Congress here in this district.

MILES O’BRIEN: A handful have thrown their slide rules into the ring. Tracy Van Houten is an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who works on Mars rovers.

TRACY VAN HOUTEN: I was in Washington last week, and then the president’s budget came out, and I was there advocating on behalf of STEM education.

MILES O’BRIEN: She ran for in a special election for a vacated congressional seat in Los Angeles.

TRACY VAN HOUTEN: If we really care about doing the big things in the world, for me at some point, it just didn’t feel big enough anymore to focus on answering mankind’s questions about the universe. I needed to kind of return my focus here on Earth to help out in the community here.

MILES O’BRIEN: Tracy Van Houten didn’t succeed in her experiment. She lost in the primary. Despite her aspirations, she is most at home in a clean room. The smoke-filled room is a new frontier.

WOMAN: Science is not what?

AUDIENCE: Silence!

WOMAN: Thank you.

MILES O’BRIEN: Scientists may find it hard to make the transition, but many of them believe this is a phase change they are compelled to investigate.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Miles O’Brien in Boston.