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Science Does Matter!

April 29, 2017
Scientists left their labs to take to the streets, along with students and researchers, in pushing back against what they fear are mounting attacks on science.

The March for Science, coinciding with Earth Day, took place in more than 500 cities worldwide with dozens of nonpartisan scientific professional societies in a turnout intended to combine political and pro-science demonstrations. Scientists left their labs to take to the streets Saturday, April 22, along with students and research advocates in pushing back against what they fear are mounting attacks on science.

Among the protester’s targets were the proposed U.S. government budget cuts under President Donald Trump; for example, a 20% slice of the National Institutes of Health. Another target was the apparent public rejection of established science such as climate change and the safety of vaccine immunizations.

ScienceInsider reported Trump's first budget request as  “a grim budget day for U.S. science" because it contained major funding cuts to the NOAA's research and satellite programs, the EPA’s Office of Research and Development, the DOE’s Office of Science and energy programs, the U.S. Geological Survey, and other science agencies. Why should these important agencies be cut in order to push a bloated defense budget?

A 2010 editorial in the scientific journal Nature warned of “a growing anti-science streak on the American right” and argued that the rising trend threatened the country’s future, which “crucially depends on education, science, and technology.” Writing in the Scientific American, Shawn Lawrence Otto, author of The War On Science, wrote: “It is hard to know exactly when it became acceptable for U.S. politicians to become anti-science.”

Scientists have been responsible for many of today’s inventions that increased our workforce by providing jobs for millions of people. Our current economy includes devices that were invented within the last century, including semiconductors, television, cell phones, the internet, electric vehicles, power electronics, energy storage, alternative energy systems, such as solar and wind power, etc. Some of this technology was derived from industry along with help from National Laboratories.

Normally, I would not want to get involved in the political fantasy world, but the time has come to raise my voice and to put a positive spin on science and engineering. For example, why should people who have no scientific background decide that we don’t need scientific reasoning when it comes to climate change? One question is, how do we educate the uneducated? Or, can we?

One answer is we have to put a price tag on everything. Some in the current political world say climate change is a hoax. They say that because adapting to climate change will cost their constituents money to confront climate change. We have to come up with a solid argument that confronting climate change will save money.

Another question of concern is, what will happen with funding for National Laboratories? Are they the next ones to feel the “budget ax”? Still another budget question is what will happen to the Department of Energy (DOE), will it be downsized? With energy becoming a critical component of all our factories and homes, we must maintain science and engineering work to help maintain our electrical infrastructure. Will we have to continue using coal and oil to generate electricity, or can we use alternative fuels? And, will DOE continue to fund research programs for college scientists that point to the future of many subjects that will affect our economy and the lifestyles of millions?

We can no longer just react to attacks on science, we have to be proactive. The marches on April 22 could be the start of one form of an education campaign for the world. Professional organizations, such as the IEEE, should also be an active participant in a pro-science counteroffensive. 

Another Viewpoint

Andrew Jewett, writing in the April 21 issue of The Atlantic, says, “I worry about the movement’s arguments. A few skeptics have charged that the march will politicize science, reinforcing an already widespread perception of scientists as liberal activists rather than dispassionate researchers. As march advocates note, however, science is already enmeshed in politics. It could hardly be otherwise, write Jonathan Foley and Christine Arena, in an article reposted on the official March for Science website: ‘After all, politics is how we are supposed to solve problems in a democratic society, and science is crucial to nearly everything we do — our economy, our health, our security, our future.’”

Jewett said, “my concern is the opposite of the usual objection. The March for Science, I believe, is not political enough. I do not mean that the marchers should campaign for Democratic or Republican candidates or take stands on contentious issues such as immigration reform. Rather, I hope that they will come to grasp much more clearly how political power works, how it intersects with social conflicts, and how policies emerge from this nexus.

“The movement’s rhetoric suggests that if governments simply fund and heed scientific research, the world will march steadily toward peace and prosperity. Applying science to politics will create “an unbroken chain of inquiry, knowledge, and public benefit for all.”

This is, dare I say, an unscientific conception of human action. A huge amount of social-scientific literature—or just a good, hard look at the political scene—shows that conflict, uncertainty, and collective self-interest would remain central features of democratic politics even if all of the disputants took scientific findings as their starting point for policy recommendations.

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