Which Way for Science?

by the Science for the People editorial team

On April 22, 2017, the March for Science will pull several thousands of people into the streets to stand up for science and resist funding cuts proposed by the current US administration. Our organization, Science for the People, sees this development as a mostly positive step in the right direction. The scale of the political and economic crises facing people across the world is enormous and will require mass movements to resist and organize for change. However, we believe there is a need to advance radical solutions to face these crises. As such we have been interested in how the March for Science has developed since its inception around January 25, 2017. Our members have been taking measured approaches to engaging with the March for Science–nationally and locally–with the overall goal of putting forward a politics capable of both taking seriously the multitude of contradictions that define scientific enterprise and accounting for the people affected by and disaffected with the pursuit, uses, and abuses of science.

For radicals and revolutionaries, unearthing and addressing the burning questions of the latent social movement for science is an urgent and primary task:

  • What’s happening to U.S. Science?
  • Who will March for Science? Who will not?
  • What is Science for the People?

What’s Happening to US Science?

Supporting science as a national priority has fallen out of favor with the powers that be, to say the least. The new administration has made it perfectly clear that it intends to incapacitate the agencies and programs that make science happen every day in America–or at least those with missions orthogonal to developing U.S. military or resource extraction technologies. Their budget calls for the evisceration of the Environmental Protection Agency, a double decimation and reorganization for the National Institutes of Health, annihilation of various Department of Energy advanced research programs dedicated to renewable energy and climate, and more. While none of this is set in stone yet, as the budget must pass through the US House and Senate, it remains to be seen just how much the legislature will dispose of what the president proposes. Either way, by a few major lacerations or a thousand tiny cuts, U.S. science is likely to lose a lot of blood.

For mainstream commentators, the the primary victim is US leadership in research, as they see these attacks as tarnishing America‘s reputation for innovation and compromising national security. Concordantly, the tears of patriotism shed for the coming loss of America’s scientific hegemony come with a blurry vision for change: perhaps Congressional bipartisanship and compromise will save us all?

As bad as the current situation is, it’s worth remembering that funding woes for U.S. science are not new. Despite help from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the past near-decade of U.S. fiscal policy shows science losing out in the budgetary fights between the Obama administration’s ambitions for science and the GOP-controlled House of Representatives’ preference for imposing across-the-board austerity. Biomedical research institutions and their workforce have experienced much of the damage, with cuts and inflationary pressure on federal nondefense science and technology spending. It’s not just federal austerity bringing down U.S. science, either, as state cutbacks to public research universities have compounded the downward pressure for funding research and for the costs of providing science education, as the increasing costs of the university are passed on to the students as tuition.

None of this is intended to diminish the gravity of the current situation, but we should understand that what is happening is an increase in the rate of change on the same trajectory. This should prime us to be critical of establishment science organizations claiming to be vehicles of resistance to the current attacks on science. If the strategies and tactics of establishment science organizations were not able to secure the foothold for U.S. science during an administration that has been characterized as being the most friendly to science on record, how are we to expect that they will work under a regime that is decidedly oppositional to science and scientists? Ruthless criticism of the capacity of establishment organizations to make change from science workers themselves is necessary if we wish to move beyond the current, stultifying paradigm of lobbying and “science communications” as being the only legitimate mode of political organizing for science. Neither perfectly crafted explanations of climate change nor new science-friendly PACs offer a way for science to move beyond its designated but diminished roles within increasingly dysfunctional U.S. federal and state governments, into a form that realizes its radical potential to catalyze transformative social and political change.

Which brings us back to the March for Science, its significance in this political moment, the entanglement of reformist and radical forces within the march, and the need for both progressive and radical scientists to strategize about moving forward after the march is over.

Who will March for Science? Who will not?

When the March for Science was announced in late January, the spontaneity and resonance of the call to action was palpable, as tens of thousands of people hopped into social media groups clamoring for details about the march and how they could get involved. No doubt, the magnitude of the organizing task–bringing together potentially hundreds of thousands of people in just over a month’s time to march on Washington, D.C. (the original event was supposed to take place in March)–proved too much for the group of initiators. Soon thereafter, a network of coordinators and communicators tapped into the digital infrastructure to take over the reins for organizing the march. The opacity of the internal organizing processes and leadership structure of the march makes it difficult to assess exactly how the current organizing committee came together. Representatives of the organizing committee have made several thoughtless remarks and strategic missteps that have induced negative feedback toward the organizers, leading to rolling revisions to the statements of principles and recomposition of the organizing body.

Scientists and activists have engaged in heated debate and varied discussions about the March for Science on Facebook and Twitter, stemming from claims by the march’s organizers that the march would be apolitical, nonpartisan, and separate from “identity politics.” For instance, in Memphis, the latest version of the March for Science Diversity and Inclusion Principles caused  a split between organizers willing to uphold these principles, and those that were not. “This isn’t about scientists. It’s about science,” claims co-chair and science writer Dr. Caroline Weinberg, a stance March for Science has since changed. Science is inherently political. What is studied, to what end, by whom and under what conditions, are all political questions integral to the very nature of science. By denying this fact, we risk erasing the struggle of scientists of color, women, disabled scientists, and scientists from the LGBTQ community who have had to fight for education, credibility, funding, and job opportunities within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Concordantly, we risk ignoring and diminishing the struggles of scientists who have resisted the use of science for making war, exploitation of workers, the enabling of environmentally destructive resource extraction, and the support of industries that harm people and the planet.

The slow acknowledgement of the political nature of science and the marginalization and exclusion of underrepresented groups from the March for Science, especially scientists of color, unleashed a Twitter storm in the three months leading up to the march. Underrepresented scientists expressed concern about the lack of diversity in the leadership of the March for Science, intersectionality, the hesitancy to reach out to other activist groups (e.g., Black Lives Matter, #NoDAPL, Women’s March), the need for a diversity statement, and accessibility issues. Dr. Stephani Page, a biochemist/biophysicist and creator of #BLACKandSTEM, spearheaded a discussion on diversity on Twitter with the hashtag #marginsci. This thread has helped force the March for Science to reflect on and reconsider their approach to organizing the march. Thanks to #marginsci, the March for Science diversity statement has been through several revisions. The March for Science organizers have also more recently created an anti-harassment policy (due to several racist, sexist, ableist, and homophobic incidents online) and recruited a few scientists of color to assist with the march.

These various stumblings reveal the ugly, longstanding problem with diversity and inclusion in STEM. According to sociologist Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos, who has been following and reporting the actions and discourse of the March for Science, organizers have even perpetuated sexist and racist stereotypes of passivity and potential for violence, respectively, in promoting the march. Female scientists of color have been trolled (i.e., harassed online) for their comments by White and primarily male peers in the science community. In response to #marginsci, the organizers announced two female scientists of color, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and Dr. Lydia Villa-Komaroff, as spokespeople for the march. According to critics, the addition of these women seems to be an afterthought to the organizers, who had early on slated celebrity scientist Bill Nye as a march co-chair. Dr. Stephani Page responded to the announcement by stating that despite the fact that she loves Nye, she still thinks that he reinforces the White, male narrative in science. “He is a white male, and in that way he does represent the status quo of science, of what it is to be a scientist,” Page tells Buzzfeed.

We applaud the efforts of activists like Page to push the March for Science to take such steps and consider it their victory that the organizers were made to respond. As of the writing of this statement, it is unknowable how many scientists of color or other individuals from underrepresented groups plan to attend or stay home during the March for Science. But it is clear that many people from marginalized and oppressed communities have been turned off by the messaging and the lack of acknowledgement of their historic struggles within STEM. This negation both whitewashes the impact of science in enabling the oppression and marginalization of these communities, and ignores the contributions of scientists from these communities. For many marginalized scientists, the March for Science appears to be centering the concerns of those who are overrepresented in STEM by focusing on issues of funding and shifting research priorities as the dominant themes of the march, while subsuming the experiences of marginalized scientists to statements of diversity, rather than creating parity for issues that are just as important and longstanding as funding. The attempts made by the organizers of the March for Science to downplay the deeply political nature of contemporary science risk making it a symbolic representation of objectivity and “science for all,” a unifying rallying cry to fight against the “attack on science.” Such failures do not address the systemic racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, and classism that still plagues the science community and society more broadly. These are not simply problems of individual morality but rather are complex structural problems and must be addressed as such through organization and demands beyond the calls for objective or diverse science.

In this moment, it is vital that we question who the scientific establishment benefits, oppresses, excludes, and ignores. How can science be more inclusive and equitable to people who identify as being disabled, LGBTQ, of color, and/or female-identifying? How can we enhance science access to local disenfranchised communities (e.g., indigenous, low-income, Black, Latinx) and how can we work with and for those communities? How can science serve humanity and the planet? Is it possible for scientists who desire meaningful social change in our society to put their talents to work for a movement capable of achieving that change, or must “politics” remain split off from their work? Can we ensure the use of evidence-based, ethical decision-making in public policy? As the Flint, Michigan, water crisis and the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) fight have shown us, now is not the time for scientists to sit on the sidelines, claim neutrality or objectivity, and remain silent. Silence amounts to acceptance of the status quo, which could mean life or death for people and the planet.

What is Science for the People?

It is impossible to escape the political implications of scientific work. Particularly since the Sputnik era, the American ruling class–primarily characterized by upper-class, educated, wealthy Whites–has long had a commitment to science based on the belief that science is good for the long-term welfare of American capitalism, exemplified by the rhetoric around the potential STEM workforce shortage and the imperative that the U.S. should reclaim its rightful place as the top nation in STEM. This outlook is shared by the trustees of universities, leading U.S. scientists in the National Academies, government administrators, and private funding agencies. They see this viewpoint as representing a mature social responsibility that is morally superior to the “pure search for truth” attitudes of some scientists, who are tolerated as long as they don’t impede or challenge these economistic aims. With the reemergence of the use of biological concepts of race in genomics research and climate change denial, persistent environmental racism (environmental disasters that disproportionately affect communities of color and low-income residents, like the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and fracking in North Dakota and California), major racial, class, and national health disparities, the role of scientists and science in society needs to be reexamined. Dr. Marc Edward’s, in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education about his and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha’s investigation that revealed the deliberate inaction of the city and state government to address the lead contamination of Flint’s water supply, shared:

I am very concerned about the culture of academia in this country and the perverse incentives that are given to young faculty. The pressures to get funding are just extraordinary. We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill—pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index—and the idea of science as a public good is being lost. [emphasis added]

Like Edwards, if the scientific community believes that science truly is a public good, then more scientists need to speak out, organize, and engage, for themselves, with, and for all marginalized and oppressed people. As a society, we need to use science to serve the people, not to turn profits or support private interests. Traditional attempts to reform scientific activity through professional societies and conferences, to disentangle it from its more malevolent and vicious applications, have failed. Actions designed to preserve the moral integrity of individuals without addressing how the institutions of science and the power they embody are complicit in systems of domination have been ineffective. What is needed now is not liberal reform or withdrawal, but a radical shift in the practice of science. Scientific workers must organize amongst themselves and as part of broader struggles to envision and achieve a liberatory science. This will require close attention to the changing nature of scientific work itself. For instance, young scientists, who are increasingly unable to find permanent employment as scientists, especially in the academy with its supposed offer of intellectual independence, will have difficulty changing science in a purely individualist manner.

The March for Science nationally and others globally who have been politically energized by the current state of affairs can learn from the history of radical politics in science. Courageous scientists throughout history have taken on social and political issues above and beyond their disciplinary “expertise.” Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Richard Lewontin, Richard Levins, Jon Beckwith, Stephen Jay Gould, Ruth Hubbard, Hilary Rose, Steven Rose, Christopher Caudwell, Helen Rodriguez-Trias, Connie Redbird Uri, and antebellum scientists of color like James McCune Smith and Martin Delany, are all examples of scientists whose lives, science, and activism were propelled by the understanding that science is deeply political. In the 1970s, radical socialist science movements like Science for the People in the U.S. and British Society for Social Responsibility in Science in the U.K. enabled a renaissance for socially conscious, politically radical critiques and analyses of the entanglement of science with U.S. imperialism and global capitalism. At the 1970 meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Science, members of Scientists and Engineers for Social and Political Action (a precursor to Science for the People) publicly disrupted a keynote by Glenn Seaborg, then Chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, and indicted him for both his role in aiding the development of nuclear weapons and “establishing, organizing, maintaining, and developing institutions of science and government for the effective use of the ruling class.” In the early 1970s, Science for the People’s Technical Assistance Program (TAP), designed to aid radical groups with technical needs, helped free medical clinics hosted by the Chicago Black Panther Party break into city electrical power grids to provide free power for the clinics. Journalists for the Science for the People magazine worked to document the negative consequences of environmental exploitation on local populations and the movements of citizens to protect the land against energy and mining corporations (see Kelly Moore’s Disrupting Science and the forthcoming book on SftP for more history). They demonstrated that such environmental catastrophes could not be undone by science alone, but required scientists to unite with citizens organizing for their communities against powerful corporations and lackadaisical regulatory agencies. Yet with the deradicalization of academia and lack of history within science education curriculum, many scientists are unaware of this history, as evidenced by the national March for Science’s blundering statements concerning politics and science.

By reorganizing Science for the People, we aim to revitalize its legacy of documenting the use and abuse of science and to organize scientists to contribute to human liberation and transformative social change. As a coalition of progressive and radical science workers and supporters, Science for the People finds the alternatives of “science for science’s sake” and “science for the progress of capitalism” equally unacceptable. We can no longer stand by as science is used as a means to promote a neoliberal, capitalist agenda that objectifies individuals and communities in pursuit of exploitative and imperialist goals. We also cannot simply engage in scientific pursuits without questioning who the research serves and impacts, how science is directly or indirectly complicit in oppression, and how we can make our work accessible and meaningful to everyone. To uncritically assume that science is progressive is to leave the tools of science in the hands of the powerful. We need to think about scientific work differently: what would science look like if it were with and for the people?

Science for the People must be organized through a grassroots effort that is intersectional, inclusive, democratic, and accessible from its inception. We must be cognizant of how individual experiences of science are shaped by race, gender, class, nationality, and so on and how this, in turn, shapes the questions, assumptions, approaches, and social interactions in science. Rather than hiding behind the pretense of an “apolitical science,” we should acknowledge, reveal, critique, and contest the ways in which power and privilege manifest within the scientific community, scientific practice, and society. Scientists, science educators, science communicators, advocates, and community members should share “ownership” of the movement while elevating and centering the voices of the marginalized and oppressed. This is especially vital if the scientific community intends to (re)establish trust with communities that have often been harmed and traumatized by scientists and scientific research (e.g., indigenous, Black, Latinx, disabled, LGBTQ). We should be inspired by the work of those scientist-activists who have been and continue to engage the scientific community and society in difficult conversations around science, power, privilege, and oppression, such as Dr. Danielle N. Lee, Dr. Jedidah Isler, Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein and the Scientists Against Fascism, Dr. Raychelle Burks, Dr. Caleph Wilson, Dr. Marc Edwards, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, and Free Radicals.

Anything called Science for the People must directly serve marginalized, exploited, and oppressed persons and strengthen their ability to participate in struggles and achieve liberation for all. Doing this radical political work requires forging connections to community and political organizations where scientific analysis and technical prowess can provide aid in struggle, addressing the “undone science” that has yet to be completed. To accomplish this, it will be necessary to establish within Science for the People a network of scientists organized and capable of collaborating on projects brought forth by social and political organizations seeking assistance and take seriously the process of learning from criticisms and suggestions by others. It also calls for the (re)learning of the history of science with a focus on hidden or untold stories and the creation of decolonized science.

Additionally, we must foster resistance to doing science that can be used as weapons against the people, either in the natural or social sciences, or that aids in the efficiency of the capitalist system to exploit people and the planet for profit. The time has come for a revitalized Science for the People. STEM workers must redirect their capacity away from serving reactionary forces and institutions that uphold the current system, and towards work that saves the planet and serves the people.

The March for Science this weekend is the exciting first step of what we hope will become a mass movement to both defend the necessity of science and to build science that works for all people. We have an opportunity to raise the issues we have discussed with our colleagues and community members while there is heightened visibility and momentum around the power of science to unite and change our world. We present both enthusiasm for and criticism of the March for Science in the spirit of solidarity and construction. As scientists and those who deem science valuable mobilize this weekend we have a chance to think deeply and critically about the root of issues in science research, funding, and impact. Science has the potential to be a force of liberation but is frequently complicit in systems of domination. Let us join with all those engaged in liberatory struggles to build a world where all science is Science for the People.

4 thoughts on “Which Way for Science?

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