Why scientists must be activists

Many scientists try to stay “neutral” and “unbiased” – and accordingly, out of the political and activist spheres . But science is inherently political and claiming that any person can be unbiased actually hinders the public’s understanding of the scientific method.

By staying out of “political issues”, we fail to communicate and defend the value of our research and our careers. Scientists that do research and find important, novel results but refuse to actively stand behind them and discuss their implications are hurting their field. This has probably always been the case, but with anti-truth and anti-science sentiments thriving under the current governmental administration, the death of science appears imminent. It is time for reform. It is time for activism. This will require those of us who are introverted, non-confrontational, and/or privileged enough to feel more comfortable “staying out of politics” to speak up. Remaining silent only contributes to the stereotypes of scientists being pretentious, unreachable, and out of touch with reality.

While these stereotypes certainly hold true for some scientists, I have interacted with many incredible scientists. Though my sample size is limited, I have hope that the majority of us are more of the shy, nerdy, quirky type.

Social media outlets provide an enormous opportunity for us to share what we do with a wider base of people than those we interact with on a daily basis- like that old friend from middle school, your parents’ friends who requested you, your friends’ parents who requested you. What’s great about posting about science through social media is that it allows us to share a different perspective with those who might not understand what we do. For instance, Twitter hashtags like #actuallivingscientist #womenscientist #thisiswhatascientistlookslike #BLACKandSTEM and #STEMselfie help increase the public’s accessibility to a larger number of scientists and their research and help to expose the misconceptions of scientific stereotypes (old white dudes with crazy hair and a lab coat, anyone?)

Nonetheless, listening to critics who appear to oppose science and truth is also important, as is recognizing that the way they feel is valid and there is a reason for it. We can all take action by speaking up and addressing misconceptions about the scientific method and inaccurate information. Right now is an excellent time to examine why so many people disavow science. Some thoughts:

The scientific community:
-We don’t communicate our research well enough, or often enough, to public audiences with different backgrounds.

-Some of us do in fact see our careers and ourselves as better than others. The number of comments I’ve heard degrading the arts and humanities- even from colleagues at institutions I’ve been associated with- is disappointing to say the least. If you are guilty of this, educate yourself on the importance of art AND science.

The general public:
-Many people haven’t had any biological or even scientific education since high school. That means since they were 15-18 years old. Take a second to process what that means.

-The science education they did have however many years (or decades) ago may have been less-than-stellar.

-After graduation, exposure to science regularly includes interpretations by the media that often inappropriately extrapolate the results of a study for attention-grabbing purposes.

On a positive note, here are some promising scientific outreach efforts you can get involved with:

-Crowdfunding and citizen science efforts are on the rise and with names like “The Lost Ladybug Project”, how can you resist helping?!

-Scientists and, importantly, people who support science will March on Washington on April 22nd, with satellite marches happening in cities around the U.S. and around the world.

The coming months and years in the U.S. represent a critical junction for science. Scientists and allies will need to mobilize- by marching, by being involved in outreach efforts, by acting locally, and by identifying our responsibility in creating the current anti-truth sentiment. Do your part. Help save science.

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