Let’s use the “March for Science” to make science better.
After the great success of the Women’s March on January 21st there was soon talk of a Scientists’ March on Washington to demonstrate our collective dismay at the dismantling of federal funding for scientific research and the very institutions that conduct it. The swift turn away from evidence-based thinking and toward “alternative facts” by the new administration has added extra urgency to this response.
Over the past weeks I was happy to see the Scientists’ March on Washington change into the March for Science, which sounds more open and democratic, and it’s good to see the energy and enthusiasm among many scientists for this. Still, reading through the March for Science twitter feed I’ve found myself sometimes wincing at the clubiness of some posts, the banter between a geeky in-crowd circling their wagons against political assaults and insults. Of course the joy of discovery and the camaraderie is great, but beyond the in-crowd this is not the “science” that many people would recognize, especially communities who have been exploited in the name of science, or alienated from science as a formal process. Because of that, some historic divides and suspicions could be perpetuated by the march. And this past experience could be exploited to further divide and weaken society. For example, the Guardian reports that the likely science advisor to the White House, a climate change doubter, recently suggested that the public sees scientists as a privileged elite, and “there’s a potential downside [to the march] of them being seen as a greedy bunch of spoiled people.” I think the march, and the challenges we all face right now, make this a great time for scientists to think and talk about how science is represented, before we take to the streets and ask others to do so as well.
One challenge to making the march a rallying point for non-scientists as well as scientists, is that for many, the “science” they have experienced has been practiced in the name of special interests for professional advancement or profit, and misleads and harms the public. And there is good evidence for this. For example, the failure of federal, district and academic scientists to fully inform Washington DC residents of their exposure to high levels of lead in their drinking water, eventually demonstrated by other scientist whistleblowers. Or the now well documented strategy of corporate-sponsored “science” designed to obfuscate clear evidence of harm from substances such as asbestos, tobacco, and sugar-sweetened beverages, or the irrefutable trends of anthropogenic climate change. Or a diversity of others for whom the term “sound science” has become a flag for research driven by hidden agendas that often do major harm, even after they are exposed.
Other people have had their human rights violated in the name of science. There are plenty of examples, including the use of enslaved women for gynecological research in late 19th century US, in the pseudoscience of the eugenics movement in Europe and the US in the early to mid 20th century, the Tuskeegee syphilis “experiment” on untreated African American men that went on for 40 years until 1972 when it was stopped by whistleblowers. The Institutional Review Board process put into place in 1991 has improved the situation, but not prevented some communities from feeling victimized and disrespected by science. One example is the recent, non-consensual use of the blood of Havasupi Native Americans for research, leading to a 2010 settlement for the cultural and dignitary harm that resulted.
Sadly, these stories and others have a resonance with the bizarre and dangerous thinking of those who currently wield power in the US. We may gasp with disbelief when introduced to the idea of “alternative facts” from the US presidential office, but we don’t have to look far to find examples of long-standing alternative facts. For example, we now know that African Americans have in the past, and apparently continue to receive inadequate pain treatment relative to whites based on the alternative fact of race-based biological differences in pain perception. An alternative fact still believed today by some members of the public, as well as some medical students and residents.
Beyond special interest agendas and the nonconsensual use or abuse of people’s bodies, when science fails to recognize the experience, knowledge, and yes, expertise of non-professionals, society loses. We know that some people without formal training have expertise, borne of a combination of experience, intergenerational learning, exceptional skill, and passion. Indeed, people all over the world have been and continue to make decisions and support their livelihoods and communities through systematic, evidence-based and frequently peer vetted processes. Through new tools such as Cybertracker, the expertise regarding animal distribution and behavior of oralite (that is, non-literate) trackers native to the Kalahari is a part of environmental monitoring in South African parks, and they have provided expert consultation to archaeologists in France attempting to interpret Pleistocene human footprints. Across a broad range of locations worldwide, environmental monitoring by local people, many with little or no formal education, has been found to be comparable to, and in some cases more complete than, monitoring by trained scientists. In mountainous Oaxaca, Mexico, some farmers expertly allocate their locally adapted bean varieties to particular growing environments across an elevational range of over 1400 m. This includes pairing of environments with genotypes with such subtle phenotypic differences that formally trained scientists can only discern them through the use of molecular markers.
Of course, not everyone is an expert, but many people have knowledge of their own experiences and environments that is valuable, but is neglected when science is confined to only those with formal training. And sometimes scientists are simply unaware of the conditions local people have to cope with, a lack of awareness that can compromise the quality and utility of formal scientists’ work. For example, investigations of environmental injustice have documented residents’ observations of air contamination of small source pollution in poor neighborhoods, and periodic pollution spikes in fenceline communities, both of which had not been investigated by responsible regulatory scientists, but were confirmed by air quality testing. More recently, residents of Flint, MI, voicing alarm about their tap water brought independent scientific attention to what we now know is an ongoing public health tragedy.
All of these examples are what Sheila Jasanoff, Director of the Program on Science, Technology and Society at Harvard’s Kennedy School referred to as the “mis-representation of science,” which undermines a powerful tool that could help us get closer to an understanding of the challenges we face and their potential solutions. Recognizing examples like those above as mis-representations can help us identify an optimistic, positive vision of science that an even broader public can relate to.
But the process of making science better should not be represented as the sole domain of a club you can only join by having letters other than Jr or Sr after your name. If we want systematic, evidenced-based, openly and critically reviewed understanding as the foundation for policy, together with our declared values, we all have an interest in encouraging more people to see science positively. So in getting ready for the march on April 22nd, I’ll work to more accurately and equitably represent science to more people. For example, figuring out when and how the public and professional scientists can work together, in mutually respectful partnerships, could build a stronger demand for science, as well as a further flourishing of its practice. This is the hope many of us have for “citizen” or community science. Whatever name it is given, a more accurate, just representation of science is hopeful, and it could create a larger alliance of people to march together, and to work together.
Some elements of this essay were developed together with colleagues for a 2016 paper on citizen science.