An open letter to my fellow industry scientists: Why the March for Science must be led by us
On April 22nd, scientists, science-lovers and people who care about evidence-based reasoning are going to participate in protests and marches around the country. The flagship march will take place in Washington DC, but there are sister marches in Boston, San Francisco, Atlanta and Raleigh, to name a few cities.
There has been a lot of debate and commentary on what the objectives of the march should be, how political it should get and what it generally should or should not do. Some think that scientists should notpoliticize the march, others think that there is no way the march could not be political. I am participating in the march myself and wish it all success, but one thing is clear to me: the march will not succeed in its objectives if industry scientists do not participate in it in large numbers.
For me, it is very clear why this is the case. First of all, a few words about the motives and reasoning of the march. The objective of the march is to send a resounding message to the politicians and people of this country about respecting scientific facts and divorcing them from political ideology. However the people who need to hear the message about science the most are Donald Trump’s supporters, especially ones in the rural areas of this country. If we don’t reach them, we would spend the day feeling happy and smug about ourselves, wander around with like-minded people, and come home after patting each other’s backs without really having accomplished much, feeling secure in our secure worlds. We would have done almost nothing to change the mind of the average person living in rural Alabama.
The only way to not have our efforts fail is to understand the details of the bridge we need to build to mend our relationship with those who may think differently. We are more similar than we think. Many people who are suspicious of science are far from dumb, but they are suspicious of certain fields of science such as climate science and evolution while being supportive of areas like space exploration. I don’t think there is any evidence that the average American is against scientific research as a whole. But those who are suspicious of specific areas think that not only do these ideas infringe on their deeply held religious beliefs, but that they are part of a grand liberal agenda to ram sweeping government policies down their throats. They also think especially of academic scientists as liberal, ivory tower intellectuals who have their heads in the clouds and who don’t care about the welfare of the common man. The victory of Trump was in large part a victory against these perceived intellectual elitists.
Firstly, what we need to convince these people is that many of the facts unearthed by science, even in areas like climate change and evolution, are independent of the political beliefs of the people who discover these facts. That means pointing out, first of all, that there are religious and conservative scientists who work in these fields, and that these scientists also support the facts independent of their religious or political beliefs. The continuing head of the NIH, Francis Collins, is a devout Christian for instance who fully supports evolution and important fields like stem cell research. The better we can do in separating scientific facts from the beliefs of the people who find out these facts, the better we will be able to reach the people who need to know them the most. At the same time, we should admit that some scientists do politicize science, and that we need to have an honest dialogue with each other about how we can keep science as neutral as possible. We also need to admit that extreme politicization of science can take place on both the left and the right.
Most importantly, however, we need to convince the people who need to hear about science the most that science is far from being limited to ivory tower academics, and to fields like evolution or climate change. Even if we completely ignored those fields, there is zero doubt that science has had a profound impact on the standard of living of the very people who are suspicious of it during the last few decades. Even if you completely took liberal academics out of the equation, science still pervades every aspect of everyone’s lives. The best way to convince them of this is to move away from pure and basic science to applied science.
That’s where industry scientists come in. Forget, for a moment, abstract academic matters like dark energy and directed gene evolution and the fine-tuning of computer climate models, forget what Thomas Kuhn said about science, forget what stuffy scientific epistemology and ontology are all about, and focus on one stark fact: Science has directly, immeasurably and irrevocably impacted the lives of rural and urban populations alike through its research into fossil fuels, into agriculture, into infrastructure such as roads and bridges, into oil refining, into plastics and textiles, into improving water and air quality, and into lifesaving drugs and vaccines against cancer, polio and infectious diseases. Most of this innovation was made possible by the creativity and passion of industry scientists, ranging from Wallace Carothers to Gertrude Elion.
Throughout recent history, companies like Bell Labs, IBM, Lockheed, Ford, GE and Exxon have been fonts of scientific innovation and progress. This kind of science is not just sewn into the fabric of everyday American life from Boston, MA to Savannah, GA, but it should also appeal to his or her patriotic instincts, since it’s what has allowed the United States to become a powerhouse of technology and finance after World War 2. Even if you are suspicious of global warming or evolutionary theory, you should be able to appreciate the profound influence science has had on your way of life by bringing you transistors, the Saturn V rocket, nitrogen fertilizer, painkillers, petroleum cracking, nylon, Ford F-150 trucks, Portland cement and the iPhone. These are not liberal or conservative inventions. These are scientific inventions. They are enabling beyond measure. Even if you think they haven’t really helped lift you out of poverty, without them your fate would be unimaginable.
It’s only by talking about these very practical and amazing innovations that you can convince the average American of the value of science. Whether you are a Clinton supporter or a Trump supporter, a Methodist or an atheist, poor or rich, gun lover or hater, for or against abortion, it is simply impossible for your life or that of your parents and grandparents to not have been radically impacted for the better because of improved medicines, better roads and automobiles, better clothing and housing and better means of communication. At the heart of every single one of these innovations is science, firmly rooted in observable fact and independent of politics and religion. At the same time, this is where we can loop back from these highly applied advances to basic science which may sound very esoteric. For instance, Einstein’s relativity is what makes GPS possible. Basic research into organic synthesis is what makes new drugs possible. And it would be impossible to understand cancer and AIDS without understanding evolution. But even if you didn’t care about the process that goes into these developments, you can still care about the fruits themselves.
I therefore want to issue an open appeal to my colleagues in industry. To scientists from Exxon, Dow, Pfizer, Kraft, GM, Raytheon, Genentech, GE, Monsanto, Coca Cola and the umpteen number of small startups doing research in pharmaceuticals, food science, agriculture, electronics and tech; don’t just participate but lead the March for Science. Show up with your families. Come out in large numbers; it’s a Saturday so you don’t even need to take a day off. Since academia is a niche, show the country that you and your colleagues actually constitute the majority of scientists in this country. Leave aside your political differences and come together to show everyone how your work and that of your intellectual forefathers has profoundly changed the average American’s life for the better, and how it has turned his nation into the most technologically advanced civilization on earth. Forget about politics for a moment and remember the joy that each one of you feels in the shared moment of scientific discovery, a moment completely divorced from your political beliefs. It certainly helps that unlike leading academic centers, the leading industrial research centers you work in are more uniformly distributed throughout the country and not just limited to the coasts. A strong showing of industry scientists would thus automatically disperse the science march over a much wider area.
My fellow industry scientists, here is our chance to try to convince our fellow countrymen, and especially ones with whom we have strong political disagreements, that irrespective of what they think about its political trappings, science is a fantastic truth-finding practical tool that influences and will keep influencing their way of life through its contributions to the most practical matters related to energy, transportation, housing, and healthcare. Here is our chance to convince the average American how she could be a part of this revolution, and how you are ready to do what you can to communicate not just the wonders of science to her but to enable her to participate in its fruits. Reassure her that you are willing to have an honest dialogue about how the government can do more to retrain her for this new technological age, to try to make sure that her kids can go to college and become technically enabled, to become a part of the same adventure that put a man on the moon, helped the United States win World War 2, and ended polio and smallpox.
Seen from the angle of these practical innovations, science has been the great equalizing force in American life, reaching Americans of every political stripe and disagreement. That is what makes it so special, so important for our future, so much worth fighting for, and most importantly, so much worth sharing with those who we think are so different from us.
I’ll see you there.