February 20, 2017
If you work in the natural sciences, it’s likely that you’ve heard that science is apolitical. Numbers, data, hypotheses and theories supposedly exist outside the realm of state and national borders, of boardroom handshakes and stump speeches.
In my career as a natural scientist, I have noticed that science’s apolitical nature tends to breed an apathy towards politics in those who conduct it. Natural scientists, comparing themselves to colleagues in humanitarian disciplines dedicated to media strategies or to the past and present struggles of marginalized groups or to the evolution of governing regimes in Russia, may feel unequipped to discuss politics with appropriate rigor. There’s a high cost of entry into the discussion. It’s scary to pay it, so we don’t.
Or it might be that as a natural scientist, we just don’t have to care. It’s no secret that funding agencies like the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Health, Department of Energy, and Department of Defense have much deeper pockets for medicine, engineering, and biology than for humanitarian disciplines across the board. As individual laboratories, we might confront funding issues, but we never have to justify to our colleagues why it’s important to study physics in general. When money gets tight at the federal level, we know in the backs of our minds that there will be enough for the natural sciences.
Maybe, like 49% of STEM employees in the United States, we’re white men, and we haven’t been confronted by issues of racism and sexism in the workplace. We’ve been able to keep our jobs separate from politics because politics hasn’t imposed itself on our jobs. So, there you have it. Science is apolitical, politics is hard, and scientists really needn’t concern themselves with such things anyway - That attitude must change.
Science is kept apolitical out of a motivation to preserve its objectivity; I do not argue that should change. Political movers must not be allowed to influence the outcomes of empirical studies. However, science is conducted by people. People exist within the context of their societies and are, by necessity, political. The amount of research funding in the federal budget is a political issue. The number of marginalized students admitted to natural science programs is a political issue. Whether queer scientists feel safe and respected in their laboratories is a political issue. Excluding women from science by continuing everything from wage gaps to workplace sexual harassment and assault is a political issue. Keeping the United States’ borders open to colleagues, collaborators, and information from around the world is a political issue. Maintaining a public education infrastructure that can train the next generation of scientists with equal opportunity is a political issue.
The overt and obvious threats posed by the Trump administration’s recent actions – EPA and USDA gag orders, denying climate science, plans to eliminate government offices studying renewable energy – have motivated scientists to organize nationwide protests. The March(es) for Science on April 22, 2017 (Earth Day) will demand a government that respects scientific fact and the contributions that scientists have made and are making to this country and will demonstrate in favor of evidence-based policy.
Advocacy and activism by scientists must not stop on April 22, however. Scientists must realize that science has to be intersectional if it is to be inclusive. By remaining aloof on political issues, scientists surrender their voices and all of the knowledge and training that backs them up.
Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Power, in 2017, is anti-science. Now scientists will stand up, make their voices heard, and demand to be respected.
Power, though, is also anti-black, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-queer, and anti-woman, and that makes power anti-scientist. That is not new in 2017. All scientists must demand respect for each one of our colleagues – we should have done so all along. Scientific data may be apolitical, but neither the labor that produces that data nor the laborers themselves can be. Let’s acknowledge that and get involved.