Science

Why Some Scientists Won't March for Science

A heated debate sheds light on how scientists see their role in society.

It takes all sorts to make a scientific community.

Photographer: Kena Betancur/Getty Images

When scientists disagree on something, as they do on the wisdom of the planned “March for Science,” they tend to disagree in an instructive way. Scientists don’t just sling mud; they examine the issue at hand and consider its possible repercussions and unintended consequences. Just by listening to scientists argue, it’s possible to learn something new -- about how they see themselves, and how they want to be seen by society.

While there’s no single reason for the protest march in Washington planned for April 22, many scientists have voiced concern over President Donald Trump’s apparent disregard for facts. In a recent interview, for example, Princeton University physicist and arms-control expert Frank von Hippel told me, “The Trump administration is saying facts and analysis don’t matter [and] that opinions based on nothing matter more.” He said he worries that the new administration will base policy “on fantasy instead of analysis and information,” which he thinks will get us into trouble.

University of Maryland physics professor Sylvester James Gates has also thought about the march and its potential consequences, and he has decided not to participate. He warned that such a politically charged event might send a message to the public that scientists are driven by ideology more than by evidence. Representing science as a political faction or interest group is extraordinarily dangerous, he told a small group of reporters recently at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He added, “I don’t want to see a march that sets science against the president.”

He also questioned whether the March for Science had a clear enough purpose and plan for subsequent action. It currently has a bland mission statement calling for “robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity” and “evidence-based policies.” 

The disagreement isn’t over whether scientists should feel free to march against the president or his policies, but whether it’s wise for scientists to form what appears to be a united political front. There are other ways for scientists to get involved in civic life.

Gates, for example, has hardly been cloistered in a lab. During the Obama years he was active on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), which created science-based reports on topics from agriculture to antibiotic resistance to cybersecurity. Most recently, a PCAST report Gates co-chaired exposed scientifically questionable practices in criminal forensics and put forward recommendations to improve crime solving and cut the risk of false convictions.

So far it’s anyone’s guess whether Trump would continue using PCAST, which was started under George W. Bush, or whether he’ll at least appoint a new science advisor. So far, he’s chosen non-scientists to head the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, and the EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, has stated views on climate change that are at odds with scientific consensus. In contrast, many past DOE and EPA chiefs have had backgrounds in science or engineering. Obama’s first DOE chief, Steven Chu, shared the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics.

At the AAAS meeting where Gates spoke, uncertainty was in the air. At a panel discussion titled “Defending Science and Scientific Integrity in the Age of Trump,” organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the March for Science kept coming up. So did concerns about the new administration. “It’s clear from the news that we have a president who rejects facts that don’t comport with his pre-existing beliefs,” said panelist John Holdren, who was Barack Obama’s science advisor. The panelists brought up objections that the march will make scientists appear partisan, and suggested that participants carefully think through why they plan to march and whether it’s for the good of science or for society at large.

Physicist and former congressman Rush Holt, now chief executive officer of AAAS, has publicly backed the marchers. In an interview for BBC News, he said that though this new administration has said little about science, “the silence is beginning to sound ominous.”

One scientist Trump has spoken to since his election is Princeton University physicist William Happer, who some consider a likely Trump pick for science advisor. In a phone interview, Happer said that he had spoken with Trump last month, and that the president dwelled primarily on the career of his uncle, John Trump, who had been a physicist and electrical engineer. Happer told me there’s no need to march for science, because there’s no reason to assume the president is against science. He also warned that the march might send the impression that scientists are elitists who enjoy much more interesting jobs than most other Americans, at taxpayers’ expense. 1  

Many scientists feel Trump has already sent a message with his cabinet picks and his narrative about alternative facts. “This administration is sending strong signals that imply they think political and financial interests are more important than the scientific evidence,” said biologist Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

To him, an important point of the march is to assert the importance of using scientific evidence in policy decisions -- whether those decisions influence the economy, the environment, worker safety or children’s health. He said he was aware of concerns expressed by Gates and others, and he thought some of these scientists were overthinking things. But in a political season characterized by labels, stock phrases and empty debates, we all should be thankful for our overthinkers, whether they choose to march or not.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. Happer, while accomplished in his field, holds views that are far from the mainstream on climate change. He said he stands by quotes he’s made in other publications that rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will do more good than harm.

To contact the author of this story:
Faye Flam at fflam1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tracy Walsh at twalsh67@bloomberg.net

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