Let Science Be Science Again

On April 22nd, I will be marching for science.

Photo c/o marchforscience.com

As a particle physicist, I wish I was able to say this earlier, or with much ease. Instead, since the idea of a march for science was first suggested in late January, the feedback has been mixed as it’s been wide, including much thoughtful criticism from the scientific community that weighed on my decision of whether or not I should participate in the march.

One side of the argument discourages the march by cautioning against potential politicizing of science. As the geologist Robert Young wrote in the New York Times, and echoed by my colleagues on social media, a march reinforces the narrative that scientists are a special interest group, and further alienates scientists and scientific findings from a signficant portion of the population who are already skeptical. Will a march for science help science?

Another side of the raucous debate supports the idea of the march, but directs its criticism at the organization of the march, where discussions of diversity and inclusion reflect the historical injustices, structural disparities, and “long-lingering tensions within the scientific community”. Can I march for science with a clear conscience, when members of underrepresented groups including myself, still face higher hurdles and narrower paths in our careers in science?

Interestingly, the two sides of the criticism against the march for science reflect a common misconception, that science is the elite pursuit of the privileged few. A caricature of science depicts people of means and leisure, bred on a rich diet that enhances their genetic gifts, donning lab coats in the same hue as their skin tone, untainted by the white chalk dust drifting from obscure equations on the blackboard. These folks, mostly men, fiddle on futuristic gadgets in secluded rooms inside ivory towers, high above the dwellings of earthly mortals who are not worth the scientists’ time or attention.

However, I know that if I were a white man born and raised in America, given my broad interests and restless persona, I probably would not have become a scientist. Science should not be a privilege. Science is a great equalizer. I believe in the promise of science because I have lived it.

I grew up in a medium-sized city in southeastern China, an only child raised by a single mother. I knew since an early age that among the few options for personal advancement, a STEM education presented the most plausible path. A career in sports or music required physical talent that I did not have. Going into business demanded resources and connections that my family could not provide. Legal practice was a nascent profession for a country still struggling with the rule of law. The pursuit of science was the easy choice, not because the subject is simple, but because even with the gendered biases and discouragements, science posed the least barrier upon entry, as well as the broadest opportunities from the knowledge and skills obtained. In fact, there was a popular saying, “Study well math, physics, and chemistry, and you can walk around the world unafraid”.

That saying, a succinct 12 characters in its original Chinese that perfectly rhymes, was passed down from my parents’ generation, a generation haunted by the memory of the great famine of the late 50s. When factual evidence of crop production and basic agricultural science were twisted and ignored by the government to fit a political agenda, tens of millions of people starved to death. The same generation came of age during the Cultural Revolution, when education grounded to a halt and science was seen as a Western conspiracy. Schools were closed. Intellectuals were persecuted. Books were burned. Some of the bravest souls kept the spark of science alive from dying embers. They studied math and science late at night under dim oil lamps after a long day of labor, using textbooks smuggled into farms and factories with great risk. After a decade of turmoil and destruction, many of the survivors became leaders of science, education, industry, and government in a recovering and eventually rising China; some of them became my professors in college.

I graduated college in China in 2009, and came to the US to pursue my PhD in physics at the University of Chicago. In some of the darkest periods of my personal life before then, the idea of America kept me alive, and the pursuit of science lit my path across the Pacific. Alexander Hamilton wrote his way out of the tiny island destroyed in a hurricane into the American Revolution. I, along with the generation before me and many of my peers, scienced my way out.

One of my college classmates who also came to the US for graduate studies was a boy named Jiang He, the graduate student speaker at Harvard University’s 2016 commencement ceremony. Born and raised in a pre-industrialized village in south China where a childhood spider bite was treated with fire, Jiang received his PhD in biology from Harvard in 2016, and spoke movingly of the scientific community’s ability and responsibility to reach out and help the underdeveloped parts of the world. When the bird flu pandemic struck his childhood village several years back, Jiang found out that simple teachings of the difference between the common cold and the much more dangerous flu, and basic practices of separating different species of livestock, greatly reduced the spread of the disease. Science is a great equalizer because it not only empowers the individual, but lifts whole communities. It is often the less developed regions that both more acutely suffers from the lack of access to science, and fulfills the greater potential of science’s equalizing power.

Science is a human endeavor. The past and present of science is as magnificent and promising as those of the human race, and inadvertently bear the complexity and flaws. As a Chinese girl working as a physicist in the US, I am constantly reminded of my privileges and my vulnerabilities, both within my profession and in society at large. I scienced my way out when the other doors were closed, but the gateways to science would never have been open to me, had I not been born because I was a girl, or not given access to education because I was a girl, or denied entry into the US if the Chinese Exclusion Act from 1882 to 1943 were still in the books.

The poet Langston Hughes eloquently wrote of the promise and failings of America, “America never was America to me / And yet I swear this oath — / America will be!” As an “immigrant clutching the hope I seek”, I see the parallel from the idea of America to that of science. Despite its tainted history and current flaws, I as a member of the underrepresented, still place my unwavering faith in the power of science as the great equalizer.

There are few simpler or more explicit ways to demonstrate the equalizing power of science than a global march for science. Popular marches of the masses are inherently democratic. They can be effective in raising awareness, building coalitions, and driving policy change in favorable directions. Marches do sometimes fail, and a march should never be the totality of the effort. However a simple look at how fearful oppressive regimes are of them and how hard they try to prohibit them, there is no denying of the power of marches.

There is a difference between the issues science as a profession needs to address, and the ones a “March for Science” can address. A march is where size matters. It is the most effective when the message is simple and the access is easy, so more people can identify with the cause, put their bodies onto the street, and use their very presence as part of a political statement.

When discussions of diversity and inclusion fall into the trap of comparative victimhood, the narrative can often be more alienating than it is welcoming. A march is not an academic exercise. Not all supporters for the science march are learned on the historical ills and structural flaws within the scientific community, nor should their lack of specific knowledge or awareness be judged as a moral deficit or disqualifier as some of the more heated debates seem to suggest. Not all supporters for the science march agree on other issues beyond their shared support for science, nor should they be subject to an ideology purity test to be welcome to the march. It speaks to the beauty and strength of a march to be able to bring together people from diverse backgrounds and viewpoints under a shared cause. The fact that the March for Science has sprung into a global movement with over 400 satellite marches around the world shows how support for science is a unifying message that transcends geopolitical boundaries.

Nature bears no political ideology, nor should the interpretation of nature. Traditionally in the US, basic research has enjoyed bipartisan support because science is non-partisan. Ironically, anti-science views also exist on both ends of the political spectrum. The limit to how much grain an acre of land could yield is not a weakness unique to western imperialism, as Communist propaganda in 1950s’ China claimed. Climate change is not a hoax made up by the Chinese, and vaccines do not lead to autism. There have always been opponents of science who try to smear or discredit facts that counter their interest-driven agenda. Supporters of science cannot let the other side frame the debate. Staying silent for fear of being misunderstood is not self-preservation; it is unilateral disarmament. The battle lines are drawn between truth and falsehoods, not along rhetoric or ideology. In WWII, African Americans and Japanese Americans fought alongside white Americans under the same allied banner. When ignorance is touted as a virtue and anti-intellectualism is encroaching on the very fabric of our society, the fight for the preservation and advancement of science calls for the unified effort from the scientific community, and from supporters of science of every color and creed.

I am the great granddaughter of women with bound feet, for whom learning how to read was a revolutionary act. I am a particle physicist at an Ivy League institution, working on the most powerful particle accelerator in the world. On April 22nd, I will be marching for science, for the promise of science as the great equalizer, for what it has been to me, and for what it can still be to many, to the privileged and the marginalized, to all. To paraphrase Langston Hughes in the aforementioned poem, let science be science again, “let it be the dream it used to be”.