Should Scientists March on Washington?

In lecture halls packed to overflowing at the nation’s biggest science conference in Boston, the buzz wasn’t all about a new discovery, but political activism.

Underlying many of the sessions at this year’s American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting was a central preoccupation and worry: how should scientists respond to looming challenges posed by the new administration’s policy statements and threatened cuts to the budgets of agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency? One answer was public protest, as hundreds of scientists took to the streets and attended the “Stand Up for Science Rally” in Copley Square half a mile from the conference—a dry run for the national March for Science in Washington planned for Earth Day on April 22.

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Protestors march on Washington, D.C., on November 16, 2016.

Yet not all scientists agree on the push for public protest. Many openly question whether political activism “crosses the line” and endangers their credibility and objectivity.  And if scientists do march and lobby, will they merely stiffen resistance to hearing evidence that should inform the nation’s policy makers?

Today’s dilemma is far from unique, as Harvard historian Naomi Oreskes noted in a lecture at the meeting. Many famous scientists have spoken out about policy issues and stood by their research in the face of opposition from vested interests, from Niels Bohr and Manhattan project physicists who campaigned to halt the spread of nuclear weapons after World War II to pioneering environmentalists in the 1960s, such as geochemist Clair Patterson’s battles against the lead paint industry, and Rachel Carson’s exposure of the hazards of DDT in Silent Spring.

Yet, as Oreskes noted, during the 1970s and 1980s, that began to change. A conviction gradually took hold among scientists that they should avoid “crossing the line” into policy recommendations and “let the facts speak for themselves.” This grew partly out of protracted controversies over major national assessments of acid rain and ozone depletion, which included policy recommendations as well as scientific analysis. For example, when the U.S. Department of Transportation convened a panel on the impact of emissions from a proposed fleet of supersonic transport planes—similar to the Concorde—on the ozone layer in 1975, the expert panelists were shocked to find that DOT bureaucrats had drastically rewritten and watered down their executive summary. In the wake of such interference and the media attention it brought, scientists grew leery about stepping into the arena of public policy.

Nowhere did this growing reluctance show itself more strongly than in the formation of the world’s most influential climate research group, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in 1988. As a multinational effort, the IPCC set out to achieve objectivity by including as broad a range of scientists from as many countries and disciplines as possible. While each IPCC assessment includes executive summaries for policy makers, its official charter explicitly states that its job is to provide “policy-relevant but not policy-prescriptive information.” Or, as one IPCC scientist commented after the 4th Assessment, “it’s not my role to try to communicate what should be done.”

That attitude is shared by many scientists interviewed by Oreskes’ Harvard research team as part of an ongoing NSF-supported survey of their attitudes to their work. While the results have not yet appeared, Oreskes has written that most of their interviewees “stress the imperative of preventing the ‘infiltration’ of political considerations into their technical reports, insisting that it is essential for their work to remain firmly on the ‘science side’ side of the science-policy border. If asked why it is essential, a common response is that the credibility of the assessment depends upon it.”

Drawing the Line?

Those feelings have become so entrenched in scientific culture that scientists who do take a strong advocacy role risk criticism for endangering the credibility of their research. A frequent target is James Hansen, a pioneer of climate modeling and one of the first to sound the alarm about global warming in his testimony to Congress in 1988. In 2013, Hansen quit his job as the head of NASA Godard’s Space Science Institute so he could pursue a more proactive role in warning the public about the consequences of climate change. At times, this role has led him to use rhetoric that has been criticized as extreme and even offensive, such as comparing coal industry freight trains to the death trains of the Holocaust. Recently, he has supported a lawsuit against the federal government by a group of 21 young climate scientists, including his granddaughter Sophie, alleging that government inaction on climate change infringes on their constitutional rights.

Partly to help underpin such legal cases, Hansen published a major peer-reviewed study in 2016 arguing that IPCC predictions of future climate are far too conservative. Bringing together 18 leading experts in ancient climate, ocean temperature, sea level, and economics, the paper concludes that a 2°C temperature rise over the coming century would likely raise several levels by several meters, drowning many of the world’s coastal cities and unleashing devastating “superstorms.” The paper won cautious praise from leading experts such as Penn State’s Richard Alley for its value as an exploration of a possible climate scenario with large and rapid changes.

Hansen used the worldwide media attention stirred by the paper to renew calls for a global tax on carbon. When journalists raised the issue of his mixing science and advocacy, Hansen retorted, “This isn’t advocacy, this is what’s needed. We’re allowing fossil fuel companies to use the atmosphere as a free waste dump. If scientists don’t say it then politicians will tell you what’s needed, and that will be based upon politics rather than science. I don’t see any reason not to make the whole story clear, or to draw the line and say ‘I’m not going to step beyond this.’”

Defending Communities

Meanwhile, a new generation of young researchers is focused not only on their science but making sure that their work has a direct and positive impact on the lives of the people they study. Nowhere has that been more apparent than the scandal of lead-contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan. At a AAAS panel titled “Science Communication for Public Good,” Virginia Tech engineer Siddartha Roy described the research campaign that developed with his advisor Marc Edwards to investigate the city’s drinking water.

The team first learned of the problem from Flint residents who complained of foul-smelling, orange-colored tap water and symptoms such as skin rashes, dizziness, and more. The Virginia Tech team moved to the city and treated residents as working partners and allies, involving them in distributing lead testing kits, launching a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for water filters, and immediately posting news and data online to keep the community informed. At the same time, via Freedom of Information Act requests, Edwards and Roy obtained emails that exposed the failure of local EPA and city officials to take the problem seriously, shaming them into action. Ultimately, the Virginia Tech team’s efforts led to some $28 million in emergency state aid for the city and turned the spotlight on a national drinking water crisis of daunting proportions. The EPA estimates that at least 7.3 million lead service lines still lie underneath major U.S. cities.

While some viewed the Virginia Tech team as activist heroes, an editorial in a leading environmental science journal recently disparaged their efforts as another case of scientists crossing “the imaginary line that separates the dispassionate researcher from the environmental activist.” That action, the editor claimed, “undermines the standing of academics as objective seekers of truth” and endangers funding for basic research. Roy and his colleagues fired back: “The professional peril is great, the critics are numerous and vocal, but staying silent is to be complicit in perpetrating injustice. And no matter what may come of the rest of our lives or careers, we are certain of one thing: Flint was a community worth going out on a limb for, and by upholding a just cause, we enhanced the social contract between academics and the public.”

While the Flint investigation is the latest high-profile example, similar scientist-citizen collaborations have recently taken on environmental threats to local communities that range from pesticide use on California strawberries to dangerous volatiles emitted from fracking operations in Montana.

Debating the March

To date, much of the action and criticism has taken place on a local level. But what does “crossing the line” mean on a national scale? The current political situation has caused some scientists to embrace activism and others to remain steadfastly on the sidelines. That split has fed doubts about the value of some forms of activism. Will mass political protests backfire by making science seem even more partisan?

These doubts figure in current debates about the March for Science, billed by its organizers as a nonpartisan celebration of scientific values; no politicians have been invited to speak at the event. Yet the March is clearly fueled by public anger at the policies of the new administration, such as restrictions on government scientists’ communications, the removal of official climate change pages from the EPA website, and existential threats to the EPA itself. “We feel the time has passed for scientists to, in good conscience, stay out of this fight,” one of the march’s co-organizers, Caroline Weinberg, told The Washington Post. “There is no need to be partisan—politicians on both sides of the aisle are guilty of positions that fly in the face of scientific evidence—but it is not possible to ignore policy when it affects not just your jobs but the future of your field.”

Despite high enthusiasm for the event, which has attracted more than 50,000 volunteers, some scientists have voiced strong reservations. In a much-discussed New York Times op-ed, geologist Robert Young asserted that it’s “a terrible idea…A march by scientists, while well-intentioned, will serve only to trivialize and politicize the science we care so much about, turn scientists into another group caught up in the culture wars and further drive a wedge between scientists and a certain segment of the American electorate.”

“I’m not convinced it’s a good idea,” said James Gates, a University of Maryland physicist and member of Obama’s Presidential Council of Science Advisors. “One reason is that if I compare it to the civil rights marches of my youth, there was a theory of action: if people got out and protested, the morality of justice that was being called for would eventually resonate with the American people. There was a plan for why you marched,” he told me. “No one has enunciated to me what the theory of action is behind the March for Science. It’s obviously a way for people to express their frustration, but I would posit that an emotional reaction is perhaps not the best way to proceed.”

“One of the things that my life in science has taught me is that you deliberate and think about the consequences of actions. I know that a lot of people are fervent in their desire to express their outrage, but an expression of outrage is not a plan.”

Still, many scientists welcome the March’s goal of promoting the value of science education and the use of scientific evidence to inform policy. As well as the march in D.C., science fairs, teach-ins, open houses and rallies are planned in over 200 U.S. cities and at least 27 countries.

The march has been endorsed by some of the nation’s most prestigious science organizations, including Sigma Xi, the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Geophysical Union, the American Anthropological Association, and—notably, AAAS. Rush Holt, CEO of AAAS, said it will work with the other societies to “make the march a success…We see the activities collectively known as the march as a unique opportunity to communicate the importance, value, and beauty of science.” Holt added that “it’s important that organizers and the science-loving public who participate in related events around the world ensure they are positive, non-partisan, educational, and diverse.”

Gates praised Holt’s statement before adding a more positive note about the march. “I am hopeful that the event will indeed celebrate science…and that it will be a celebration of what American science has accomplished in raising the broad quality of life in the United States, not just a celebration of science for science’s sake.”

Meanwhile, there’s one thing that nearly all scientists can agree on: the need for them to improve the way they communicate their science to the public and policy makers. As former AAAS president and White House science advisor John Holdren observed at the meeting: “It’s not just enough to say ‘trust me.’ We need to do a better job, in multiple ways, showing why research is relevant. Get better at telling stories about how and why science matters and how science works and tell those stories to every audience you can find.” On April 22, that audience may number in the hundreds of thousands—or even millions—in cities around the world.