On April 22, scientists and allies in Washington, D.C, and at satellite marches nationwide will take to the streets. In Lexington, we will be marching on the Courthouse Plaza to defend scientific research, scientific consensus and the essential role that science plays in our daily lives.
But can we simply march for science as it is, ignoring the voices of those who science has marginalized and excluded? Or can we take this opportunity to do better? Can we raise our voices in support of science while remembering that it has always played a starring role in the maintenance and perpetuation of exclusion and inequality?
We think that we can and that we must. The long-term viability of science relies on our willingness to build a more just and inclusive science, even as we celebrate and defend it in a hostile political climate.
And the Trump administration’s rhetoric, appointments and priorities are, indeed, actively hostile to scientists, threatening the future of scientific research:
▪ Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, denies the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is driven by human activity.
▪ Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget, has called measures to combat climate change “a waste of money.”
▪ President Donald Trump has yet to name a science adviser and his proposed budget includes crippling cuts to the National Institutes of Health, which funds life-saving biomedical research, and the Environmental Protection Agency, responsible for implementing beneficial and popular environmental protections.
▪ The administration’s proposed travel ban creates an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear, causing many scientists to abandon plans to study, conduct research and share results in the United States.
Yet, we also should recognize that delegitimizing science has long been bipartisan. Popular opposition to the development of genetically modified foods and to mandatory vaccination programs, for example, crosses party lines — despite scientific consensus on their safety and necessity.
However, scientists have stepped into the political arena during a particularly challenging time. Since the march was announced, commentators have consistently criticized organizers for their hesitance to address problems of equity, inclusion and access that pervade the sciences. Organizers of the local march have received similar criticisms.
The national March for Science was initially slow to respond to these criticisms, but we commend organizers for releasing a strong statement on diversity and inclusion; the Lexington organizers have committed to building a more inclusive march. We must recognize that in a society where opportunity is not equitably distributed, science will tend to reflect this inequality.
Indeed, according to a 2017 National Science Foundation study, only 28 percent of those in science and engineering fields identified as women, compared to 50 percent in non-science and engineering professions. Only 5 percent of those holding positions in science and engineering identified as black, compared to 13 percent of the general population.
A full 49 percent of science and engineering workers identified as white men, compared to 31 percent of the general population.
This absence of diverse perspectives creates blind spots. Popular histories of science and engineering elevate the discoveries and innovations of heroic white men, often obscuring the essential contributions of women and people of color (see this year’s Oscar-nominated “Hidden Figures” about black women’s contribution to the space program).
When we march for science, we must also remember that science has often harmed and justified the harm of marginalized communities. To put it simply: A racist and sexist society will tend to produce scientific racism, which will circle around and justify racism and sexism in society.
J. Marion Sims, the “father of modern gynecology,” experimented extensively on slave women. Sir Francis Galton, inventor of regression analysis, used his methods to make the case for eugenics, an early 20th-century experiment that used forced sterilization and justified existing racial segregation in the United States.
Recently, the EPA and the Michigan health department quietly dismissed water-quality complaints from the predominantly black residents of Flint for years before finally launching an investigation under pressure from experts.
These cases raise deeply troubling questions about who regulations are meant to protect, whose complaints get heard and whose lives are valued.
We march to raise our voices in support of scientists, science and the role evidence-based decision-making must play in government. Yet, scientists can no longer avoid confronting the political complexities that are, and have always been, present in our work. Wrestling with these questions is necessary for the long-term viability of science and the dream that sustains it.
We hope you’ll join us April 22 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., ready to speak loudly, but honestly, about all that science contributes to our world and ready to put in the work that a better future demands.
Alex Helman is a doctoral student in biochemistry and Eric Huntley is a doctoral student in geography at the University of Kentucky. Both are members of the executive committee of the Lexington March for Science.