Currently, the big hubub in the scientific community, the one everyone is talking about, is the March for Science. Essentially, scientists, and people who value scientific inquiry, around the world will gather to protest the degradation of science in the current political climate. It maintains special resonance as the march will be tomorrow, Earth Day, and we are seeing the politicization of climate change. I know a lot of people who are going and are moved to go especially since the election. I also know some people who will not be going; one of them is me. I cannot speak to why other people aren’t going. Their reasons are varied. I can though say why I’m not going. Basically, I feel uncomfortable protesting as an academic.
There is a lot of back and forth on whether scientists should protest or not. We don’t want science to be politicized. Science is already politicized. The function of a scientist is to remain neutral. Science does not exist in a vacuum. etc. The thing is I agree with a lot of the arguments of the “pro-protest” people. Science is already politicized (in some areas), it does not exist in a social vacuum; even if they were true, scientists are still human, not amoral automatons diligently doing work regardless of societal context. At a basic moral level, we do have to speak out when injustice happens. I also quite agree with the message of the participants and organizers. Science does occupy a lower rung within our society. We value science when it tells us what we want to hear or brings us tangible benefits. All other times, it is discarded and demonized. (By the way, I don’t think our treatment of science has gotten worse in recent years. In some ways, the problem is that it has become less politicized [and I mean politicized in the general sense of used to gain power] and less serving to specific industries.) So if I agree with all that, why am I not going?
There are many reasons I am choosing to not to protest. Some of them are personal, others are logistical (ability to get there, time,…). The main reason I’m not going though is that while I feel the reasons for the protest are valid, I do not feel that the protest is valid. The problems facing the scientific community are real and potentially severe, but scientists themselves are people with power and privilege (yes, I that word). Protesting arose because people without a voice understood that coalescing and disrupting gave them a voice. I’m sorry to all my academic friends, but scientists have a voice. Though it may not seem like it, we have many advantages that make protesting, to me, seem shortsighted and being self-unaware.
This main reason can be further subdivided into two more reasons why I won’t be going. One, as people with privilege and power, I don’t want to seen to be complaining about what is, compared to many people, a pretty good life. Think about it. Many scientists and academics (which should not be confused with just being PhD recipients) are doing what they love to do for, frankly, a nice salary. Sure, it’s not perfect. Long hours, decreasing opportunities for new academics, less funding, increasing pressure to publish and pad the CV, all these things can make for a miserable life full of stress. But few would sincerely trade their degree for having no skills, their career in academia for a career at Walmart. We get to be professionals, not workers. Even I who have thought deeply about ending my PhD early (and almost did!) am thankful that it never came to that. I’m glad that I will be pushing for a PhD. And despite where my career ends up, I will be better off in skills than the vast majority of the American population. In some way, we’re like men trying to bring awareness to the fact that the majority of suicides and suicide attempts are by men and that this is a crisis. The reasons are very, very valid. I have no problem with advocacy for such a problem. But I am very wary when it begins to veer into the territory of clashing, or even simply contrasting, with the problems. Slogans like “Not All Men” or “Men Matter, Too” or god forbid “Men Rights” are expressions of privilege. I worry about scientists expressing their privilege, especially if it’s in the context of “The dumb public won’t listen to us educated ones.” Which brings me to my second point.
The second point that scientists helped create their problems and scientists can still solve them. Part of the discrepancy concerning male suicide is that men don’t feel comfortable expressing emotions due to gender roles that define men as logical and tough and women as emotional and soft. As callous as it sounds, men by creating these gender roles help to foster the disparity of suicides. In the same way, scientists helped create some of their problems. While part of the CV padding and the publish or perish mentality is created by a hyper-competitive environment due to a lack of funding and jobs, we must admit that a huge part of this is created by our own obsession with h-index, number of citations, and journal impact factor. This is something we could solve if we really wanted to. As for say public awareness and investment in science, I would ask those marching what they plan to do after the march. Are they trying to speak about their research to the public? And not just the public who want to listen but those who don’t? Scientists have often taken a didactic approach to knowledge dissemination. We know, we speak, you listen. And that’s at best. Other times, scientists are unwilling to even engage, expecting to just be given money to do research and left alone. It’s what I was hoping for when I first started doing research. Refusing to talk about your work and isolating yourself is no way to “charm” the public. Even when we do such things, we are unwilling to almost engage in the fundamentals that will truly bring science to a greater prominence in our society.
The role of science cannot be solved if the deep wounds injuring our society aren’t fixed. The problems of racism, sexism, classism all combine to create a toxic stew that drags the entire society, including the scientific elements, down. And scientists and scientific inquiry are not immune from them. All these evils plague the field and are often perpetuated by scientists themselves both within and outside the confines of academia. Many scientists who want to work in academia dream of working at a well-paid Ivy League institution. They choose to live in upper-middle class neighborhoods, which are often predominantly white. They separate themselves culturally from the wider public, thumbing their nose at those who may dare watch sports or reality TV. Once again, I have been guilty of all these things (except for wanting to live in a majority white neighborhood). Few want to work at a public institution unless it is prestigious like Berkeley or Michigan (*vomit*). Even fewer are willing to leave their cushy middle-class neighborhoods and live in rural areas, working-class areas, places that aren’t majority white. The best way to counteract growing scientific illiteracy is a robust public education system in which all members get a roughly equal base-level of education. The poorest areas often receive the worst funding of public education and said poverty is often tied to race. How many scientists are willing to give up their nice middle-class neighborhood and move to a mixed-income one? How many are willing if they stay to accept public housing or have low-income families move in so their children can receive a decent education? How many are willing to send their kids to the local public school which provides an adequate education instead of the private school? How many scientists are willing to intermingle with the “lesser” culture and make connections with people not like them? How many are willing to deeply engage with the wider community?
This is where scientists can really make a difference. Am I against the protest? No. In fact, I salute many of the people there. They, unlike me, are willing to do something about the problems they seek, not matter how imperfect I see their actions. At least they aren’t just sitting at a computer critiquing while doing nothing. I recognize my deep hypocrisy as I write this spiel. But I do hope that this just doesn’t begin and end with the protest. That as scientists we complain for a day and do nothing about it. That we, with the ability to change the world, are content with changing only our fortunes. Oddly enough, I feel the solution is to get more politicized. To stand up against racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia. To stand up for the redistribution of wealth and the integration of our neighborhoods and schools and against the banning of immigrants. To stand up for healthcare for all and against discrimination in health whether due to poverty, disability, or sex. To stand up against nuclear proliferation and weapons in general and against starting wars and regime change. To stand up for renewable energy to combat climate change, TRAID, and doing what is necessary so that every society is developed with citizens whose welfare is high. We need to get political and really make sure our voice matters for all people and everyone, not just ourselves.