Jacquelyn Gill is an assistant professor at the University of Maine in the School of Biology and Ecology and the Climate Change Institute. She is a co-host of the climate change podcast “Warm Regards.”
Hundreds of thousands of people will march for science this weekend in cities around the world in what is arguably the largest scientific event in history. This March for Science is a direct response to recent attacks on our scientific institutions — on climate and environmental science in particular (including many of the scientists who do this work) and even on the value of evidence-based decision-making by our elected officials.
Since its announcement in January, the March for Science has become a microcosm of the problems we face as a scientific community: Is science political? Should scientists be advocates — or even activists? How do we increase public support for science? Whom does science leave out, and whom have we harmed? Addressing these questions is a painful but much-needed exercise, especially if scientists are to ask others to stand with us.
These discussions are necessary because the “war on science” is, for the most part, really a war on public science — that is, science for everyone. Today, the majority of scientific research in the United States is publicly funded, administered through the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA and other agencies. Much of this research takes place in state and federal institutions, including universities and national laboratories. This taxpayer-funded science has a mandate to support the national interest. It is science of, by and for the people.
I am an assistant professor at the University of Maine — a public, Land and Sea Grant university with a student body drawn from a population that is mostly rural and working-class. I grew up in the rural, working-class towns that we often heard about during the last election. I am the child of parents who served in the Navy and later worked in steel, coal and oil. And I am a scientist who researches climate change and biodiversity.
My identities as a scientist, an educator and an advocate for science are deeply interconnected with my identity as a citizen and the challenges we face together as a nation. Despite the fact that I’ve devoted my life to a career in science, I believe the real stakeholders in the war on science aren’t scientists; they are all of us.
When science is for everyone, it is transparent, accessible and broadly communicated. It has direct benefits to public health and our economy, contributes to a culture of innovation and discovery, and supports education and engagement at all stages of life. The intersections between science and politics may feel new, but they’re not. The outcomes of scientific research have always extended well beyond the lab and the boardroom. Our work has implications for our environment, public health, civil rights, economics, education and national defense. This means science has always been political. And I believe that this is a feature, not a bug.
The age of ivory tower science is over, and it must not return. Scientists are everywhere: in classrooms and churches, factories and farms. We’re on sidewalks, in cafes, on the airwaves and in your Twitter feeds. Public support for evidence-based decision-making, and the institutions that do and support science in the public interest, can grow only if the public values science, understands how it works and what our agencies do for us. Most people can’t name a living scientist. Most fields of science are still woefully poor at reflecting the diversity of the populations we serve. And yet, people are benefiting from the work of science now more than ever.
We face unprecedented challenges in the coming century: feeding 10 billion people by 2100, confronting emerging infectious diseases, navigating the transition away from a fossil fuel-based civilization, addressing climate change and its impacts on people and wildlife. To address these challenges, one of our most powerful tools will be science, but it must be for everyone.
The March for Science may have been envisioned as a response to external attacks, but it has — perhaps even more importantly — catalyzed much-needed discussions within our community about science’s political intersections. On Saturday, fellow biologist Terry McGlynn will carry a sign reading “Everyone needs science. Science needs everyone.”
As we march — or don’t — we must remember this truth: If we are to build the trust and support we need to survive and even thrive, so that we can in turn serve, science must be for everyone, from its creation to its application, from its sponsors to its beneficiaries.