Yesterday, thousands gathered in Washington D.C as well as other satellite sites to participate in the highly publicized March for Science. The collective effort was inspired in part by the Women’s March in January and served as a response to Trump’s recent actions against the scientific community such as the controversial budget cuts to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as well as the administration’s censorship of the EPA and USDA. However, the movement quickly generated controversy even from members within the scientific community out of the fear that science would become trivialized and ingrained within the “culture wars” and ultimately lose the authority it currently possesses.
To many detractors of the march, science is an apolitical discipline that should be divorced from the often-times convoluted realm of politics. However, although prominent figures in the scientific community do tend to remain taciturn in relation to national issues, the research provided by scientists is inherently political in the many ways their work is interpreted and utilized by the general public.
Ever since the days Galileo—who was forced to recant his heliocentric theory by the Roman Catholic Church—modern science has maintained an oft-disregarded political edge. In our own national history, instances of science being utilized to justify the political status quo are rife throughout the American narrative. Supporters of slavery in the 1800s for instance justified the enslavement of African Americans through racial anthropometry and the now seemingly incredulous illness of “drapetomania.” In the present, as evident by the contentious political dialogue around global warming and evolution in the public education system, it is disingenuous to claim science as being inherently apolitical. As evidenced by the march, even the scientific community has its own political issues that it sometimes fails to acknowledge.
Within the March for Science camp, criticism of the event focused on the lack of diversity within the movement, which was reminiscent of similar concerns during the Women’s March. While the majority of scientists constitute white, male, cis-gender, and often financially well-off individuals, they represent only one part of the dynamic scientific community. When leaders of dynamic movements remain largely homogenized, marginalized members can often be brushed to the wayside despite good intentions. Furthermore, while the scientific community stood up in response to the political actions of the Trump administration, such a strong coalition-based response is largely missing from other science-related crises like Flint, Michigan, which disproportionately affected low socioeconomic minority populations. Nonetheless, this march represents a crucial milestone in protecting the interests of science and the scientific community within the United States.
As an international research powerhouse, Duke clearly has a critical stake-hold within the current debate around funding for the sciences. The National Science Foundation reports Duke as having the seventh largest research expenditures among American universities (ahead of both Stanford and Harvard). As a leading private research institution, we should be diligent in showing political support for scientific research, which now more than ever is being threatened by those in Washington who question the validity and societal value of scientific inquiry. Scientists can no longer remain silent as their way of life is currently in the throes of the Trump administration. It is time to take a stand in the name of Science.