We Are The Scientists Against A Fascist Government

By Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Sarah Tuttle, and Joseph Osmundson

Wikimedia Commons

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein (@IBJIYONGI on Twitter) is a rowdy queer Black Jewish femme, theoretical physicist at the University of Washington, and Editor in Chief of The Offing. Sarah Tuttle is a noisy white Jew and a professor of astronomy at the University of Washington, Seattle. Joseph Osmundson is a queer white writer and a cancer biologist at NYU with a PhD in Molecular Biophysics from The Rockefeller University.

Our research is often supported by government funding.

A s we face threats to humanity ranging from continued violations of Native American sovereignty and anti-Black violence, to anti-refugee policies and the denial of global warming — a phenomenon that promises to displace more and more people — now is the time for scientists to ask:

What is our moral duty as scientists?

We are writing as scientists who are concerned about the rise of an authoritarian, Trump-led, and GOP-dominated government. While new administrations always mean change — for federal agencies, for funding priorities, and for the direction of our nation — perhaps not since Andrew Jackson has an American President been so outwardly threatening to so many groups of people that reside within the borders of the United States; as climate change accelerates, so too should our response to it.

Rather than taking up the task of providing necessary leadership to protect our global ecosystem, Trump and the GOP are instead planning devastating rollbacks of environmental protections. We believe the gutting of these programs represent a profound danger to all life on earth; indeed, we are at a precarious point in our human history.

What is our moral duty as scientists?

As scientists, our funding swells on the fortunes of commercial, governmental, and military spending. It can shrink just as easily. Many scientists view their work as objective, operating outside of the realm of the political; ostensibly, facts are facts and shouldn’t be subjected to opinions. History has shown us again and again, however, that science does not exist in a vacuum, but will be exactly used — as a constructive tool or a weapon — to impact ideological, political, and socioeconomic goals. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can see that politics, ethics, and science have always been inextricably entwined.

Our lengthy human legacy traces a long and fraught entanglement between scientists and fascist administrations; we’ve borne witness to the havoc it wreaks not only on scientific research, but on society’s most vulnerable communities. There is no clearer example than the swift and radical changes that the Nazi Party introduced in Germany after they came to power in 1933 — much like Trump— without a majority mandate, but via legal methods.

History has shown us again and again that science will be used to impact ideological, political, and socioeconomic goals.

Donald Trump — with the apparent support of the Republican Party — opposes the open and free exchange of information, including scientific research. More worrisome, his administration has taken steps to further institutionalize and enshrine racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia in U.S. law and government operations.

Science, even just within the United States, is an international enterprise; it’s an intricate multinational dialogue and financial ecosystem. The scientific community in America contains — indeed relies on — immigrants from countries around the world. We recognize that there are hierarchies of power — as with every other facet of society — within the scientific community. We must stand with those at the greatest risk, including people of color, women/gender minorities, immigrants, and those at the intersections of these identities. Attacks on those at the margins — both within and without the scientific community — are attacks on human knowledge, on the very advancement of our society.

They are attacks on all of us.

As scientists, we cannot accept this new status quo. While we are deeply concerned about what the future holds for scientists — especially scientists from traditionally-excluded communities — we are also concerned about the impact of the administration’s agenda on the broader U.S. population, the global population, and our planet’s entire ecology. We understand in this context that it might seem simpler for scientists — especially those from backgrounds that have been more readily welcomed into the scientific community — to “reach across the aisle” and work with the new administration.

But we believe it is imperative that scientists pause and consider the profound implications of this proposal.

Already we have heard our scientific colleagues murmur about trying to keep our work and ourselves “apolitical.” We even saw an early, now-retracted statement from the American Physical Society (APS) that sought to capitalize on Trump’s racist dog-whistle slogan “Make America Great Again.” While APS eventually recanted their statement, we understand that it reflects a deeply flawed, but broadly held belief among scientists that bipartisanship is always the answer, even if that means power-sharing with an administration that intends to cause financial and physical harm to vulnerable members of society — many of whom are scientists, the very people doing the work they claim to want to protect.

We cannot accept this new status quo.

We have also heard private rumblings about what type of scientific funding might be spared in Trump’s America: Climate change will go, but cancer research must be safe. Even if they come for cancer research, particle physics merits an independent defense. Max Planck, for example, similarly argued that Jewish theoretical physicists were different from other kinds of Jews, in an attempt to spare Jewish scientists’ lives. As we know, this protective presumption was swiftly disproved by the Holocaust, which targeted the already marginalized Roma and most widely known, European Jews.

We used the words “fascist” and “establishment” in our title very purposefully. The Trump administration is characterized by blatant lies, lies that are repeated even after being proved demonstrably false. The administration uses scapegoats — like immigrants and Muslims — to drive nationalist sentiment. The administration speaks of returning to our nation’s lost greatness, “a greatness” predicated on the oppression of the same scapegoats he seeks to ruin. The administration openly attacks journalists and voting rights.

These are all hallmarks of fascism. And because this fascism now carries the weight of the executive branch of government, it has become an entrenched, establishment fascism, emboldened by the mechanisms of life and death — from drones to nuclear bombs, from family planning grants to decisions about which diseases receive research funding — that the American government provides.

The administration speaks of returning to our nation’s lost greatness, a ‘greatness’ predicated on the oppression of the same scapegoats it seeks to ruin.

For now, Trump and the GOP are attacking Planned Parenthood, which many women/gender minority scientists — among millions of others — rely on for health care. Already climate science is called a hoax. Scientists and doctors are being kept away from their work by the immigration ban. Later, even cancer research might be characterized by small government advocates as “bloated, bureaucratic, and inefficient” in order to cut budgets and privatize the public sphere. We condone and perpetuate the fascist work of the administration when we highlight colleagues and areas of study as “politically dangerous” and “political distractions.”

There is no island in the center here. There is no safety in our silence. Professional standards and ambitions are not a substitute for morals, political or otherwise.

It will be argued that the concept of “objectivity” must at this time be strongly emphasized over partisan, political protest. But as science historian Alan Beyerchen explains in his seminal book — Scientists Under Hitler — on the impact of Naziism on physics:

“The emphasis on practical considerations dissipated the energy needed to oppose the Nazis, leading to what one observer has termed ‘prudential acquiescence’ on the part of the scientists…Their actions were in complete accord with a set of standards we have come to recognize as too narrow. Resistance would have broken their code as effectively as open devotion to the Nazi cause.”

Beyerchen acknowledges that physicists like Nobel Laureates Planck and Heisenberg were people of conviction, but they were overly concerned with following the rules — cowardly obedience — rather than creatively and strategically resisting a fascist regime. We must not replicate their mistake.

There is no island in the center here. There is no safety in our silence.

In light of this history, we find calls for the building of bridges to be naive, and that’s being generous. This presumes some basic shared set of values. How can scientists build in a bipartisan manner when one party is committed to ignoring science at best, and leveraging it for systemic oppression at worst? The new administration has already made its priorities crystal clear: infrastructure spending is euphemistic code for building xenophobic walls, not for building roads and bridges, not for finding cures, not for testing vaccines, and not for studying our physical world.

The biomedical and physical sciences have not been immune from collusion with past racist and fascist regimes. From the connections between early human genetics and racist eugenics, to the use of enslaved Black women for the development of American gynecology, to the scientists who enabled and justified the Nazi holocaust, the dangerous dialogue between politics and science is undeniable. It is not up for debate; science can be, and has been, used as a tool of fascism, of active oppression. We must take an early and unequivocal stance: We will not let this happen, even if it means much of our funding is lost.

In order to move away from a constrained, collaboration-oriented stance, we propose that starting points for discussion should include those with the most power taking the highest risks. Among a growing number of proposed ways to engage in resistance, one option is for tenured faculty to engage in work slowdowns and strikes, with teaching and committee work stoppages. We cannot afford to normalize this administration’s attempts to subvert the rule of law, which has often fallen short in protecting people at the margins and more often than not has established their place at the margins.

It is not up for debate; science can be, and has been, used as a tool of fascism.

We cannot do business as usual anymore, regardless of how much we love our research or how important it feels. It is for the love of science and our long-term ability to study it that we must take a stand now, while there is still time. This is not just a matter of individual action, but collective action: Faculty and administrations must visibly oppose marginalizing policies, whether they target immigrants from majority Muslim countries or further institutionalize destructive mass incarceration of American residents.

We believe that scientific research is a creative enterprise and expect that scientists can and should come up with creative ways to stand in solidarity with society’s most vulnerable, whether or not they are members of the scientific community. There is a proud tradition of the revolutionary scientist. Linus Pauling, a nobel laureate and protein chemist, worked with the Black Panther Party to develop inexpensive diagnostic tests for sickle cell anemia. Albert Einstein worked as an anti-racist and peace activist during and after World War II. Max von Laue resisted Nazi infiltration of German physics and maintained relationships with Jewish scientists, while publicly eulogizing those who were lost. This is a tradition we see as our duty to uphold.

There is a proud tradition of the revolutionary scientist. This is a tradition we see as our duty to uphold.

We call on those who undertake this endeavor of science to keep their eyes on the prize and be strong in the face of seemingly insurmountable forces. We invite you to join together with us to issue a firm rebuke to this new world of alternative facts and negotiable truths. We recognize that in times such as these it is crucial that we push back in the methodical, consistent, and relentless ways in which we have been trained to pursue the truth. We recognize the responsibility to hold the line against hate.

We are Scientists Against a Fascist Establishment, and we refuse to maintain our research funding — our livelihoods and life’s work — in exchange for our complicity with Trump’s racism, colonialism, nativism, xenophobia, and corporate agenda. Join us.

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