The integrity of marching for science

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President & Executive Director Philip B. Duffy

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about last week’s March for Science is that it should have been necessary in the first place. One would think that the many benefits of science would be manifest and beyond dispute. After all, if one recognizes science as the process of accumulating understanding by testing hypotheses against observations, then science is what has allowed humanity to progress beyond the Stone Age. If nothing else, the importance of science as a key contributor to our economic prosperity and to our military strength is normally understood and valued by members of both political parties.

But this administration is different. Its disinterest in science is reflected in the president’s proposed budget, and in leaving vacant key science-related positions in the administration. The proposed budget includes cuts to science-based federal agencies which are unprecedented in their breadth and depth. Even the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which traditionally enjoys wide support because it works to cure illnesses that affect virtually every family at some point, is slated for a massive 18% funding cut. Science-related vacancies to which no one has even been nominated include the heads of NASA, NOAA, USGS, and of course Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, to name only a few.

All of this suggests that this administration genuinely doesn’t understand the value of science. This is perhaps not surprising in light of this president’s apparent lack of appreciation for all forms of expertise. (Remember, this was the presidential candidate who refused national security briefings and claimed to “know more about ISIS than the generals” do.) Indeed, the very idea that someone with no experience in government or public service is qualified to be president implies a lack of respect for expertise.

It is also remarkable that so many people, including more than a few scientists, seem to think that it is wrong for scientists to publicly point out the value of their enterprise, because this “politicizes science.” The trouble with this position is that science is already highly politicized, and this politicization is causing great harm. John Holdren has pointed out that federal science funding is determined by Congress, which makes that a political process. But that’s only the beginning. This administration wants to promote the fossil fuel industry, to which many of its members have personal and financial ties. It does not make sense to do this if one accepts climate science, so for political reasons, climate science and climate scientists have to go under the bus. Under those circumstances it is appropriate and important for us to publicly defend the integrity of our work and its benefit to society.

Concern about scientists engaging in politics no doubt also originates in part from fear that this will tarnish the credibility of scientists, who as a group traditionally rank highly in surveys measuring public trust. (It’s unfortunate, but understandable, that engaging in politics should be associated with lack of credibility.) This concern has validity, but that must be weighed against the harm done by letting attacks on science go without a vigorous response.

In the end the decision for WHRC to march for science was easy. If we stand for one thing, it is the importance of making policy based on science. I’ll march for that any day. If science is not a factor in decision-making, that creates a vacuum that too often is filled by … politics.

Thanks as always for your interest and support.