On Earth Day, Saturday April 22 2017, scientists will descend from their ivory towers in more than 500 cities across the globe to stage a huge March for Science.
The scientists are coming out en masse to champion “robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity”.
The movement started early this year after Donald Trump’s science-and-technology-free inauguration speech and his controversial decisions to remove from the White House website all climate change related material, forbid researchers at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to speak to the press and introduce visa restrictions on citizens from a number of Muslim-majority countries.
In Europe, where I sit, silenced scientists is not really an issue. The values of science – the search for the truth, and the need for openness and transparency in research – are broadly supported within the EU.
Apart from an expected emphasis on government under-funding of the sciences (particularly in Francophone Belgium), Europe’s marches are largely in solidarity with American colleagues.
The silenced EPA
How did we get here? As with so many grassroots actions, it all began with a tweet – not one of The Donald’s, this time, but a tweet from Caroline Weinberg, a New York-based science writer and public health researcher.
Paraphrasing a quote from The Mourning Bride, by British playwright William Congreve, Weinberg stated that “Hell hath no fury like a scientist silenced”.
Her message nicely expressed the frustrations of many climate researchers, in particular those at the EPA. For silenced, indeed, has the EPA been over these last months.
After Trump’s inauguration, posts ceased to appear on the agency’s blog. Then, two weeks ago, this missive went live. In it, the agency’s deputy director for Global Affairs and Policy, Marianne Bailey outlines her personal career development, from joining the US Peace Corps to leading negotiations of the Minamata Convention on the use of mercury.
Bailey purported to be proud that “our newer staff members have put their intelligence and leadership qualities to work on today’s most pressing challenges”.
More recently, on April 18, Elle Chang, from the EPA’s Office of International and Tribal Affairs, took to the blog to explain “How one bus ride led me to public service” “
Nice personal stories, to be sure, but very little environmental content.
Loss of public trust?
Faith in science has been undermined not just by politics but also by the increasingly competitive race for research funding.
The generalised use of rather simple, primarily quantitative indicators for measuring research performance, for example, poses a continual danger to our work. And perverse incentives are leading to strategic mistakes and, in the worst case, unethical behaviour.
The recently exposed sugar scam (in which industry-sponsored research distracted from the health hazards of sucrose for decades, blaming cholesterol instead) is one relevant example.
Scientists aren’t the only professionals whose field requires openness. But scientists – and, increasingly, journalists, too – are particularly beholden to transparency. If we are not honest about the methodology we follow and the data we use, how can we question received wisdom and, every now and then, put forward unwelcome critiques?
As Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, president of the European Research Council put it on the occasion of the organisation’s tenth anniversary in early April 2017:
This open attitude of refusing to build walls is not guaranteed…. It would therefore be inappropriate to give the impression that scientists have some kind of monopoly in the pursuit of truth or virtue. Actually…we scientists first bear a particular level of responsibility [to] support the pursuit of the scientific method at all levels, from primary school to the most prestigious labs and university departments.
Failure to do so will have profound risks. As scientists Marc A. Edwards and Siddhartha Roy have argued, if a "critical mass of scientists become untrustworthy”, we may reach a tipping point in which the scientiﬁc enterprise itself becomes inherently corrupt.
Thus far, in part because of international openness and transparency, that has not happened. Major crises in some disciplines aside, scientists have largely proven capable of self-regulating our activities.
Scientists and the public debate
Still, to my mind science and scientists in Europe have been unacceptably silent during crucial national and European debates.
Scientists were almost totally absent from the Brexit debate last year, for example.
They may have now a second chance, within an extremely narrow window of opportunity, to resurface the economic evidence on the long-term impact of the UK’s exit from the European Union.
It is critical to counter current short-term positive economic trends in the UK with the fact that to date the country remains part of the EU, benefiting in competitiveness terms from its currency’s downward adjustment following the Brexit referendum. This scenario is not comparable to a real post-Brexit economic reality.
It’s noteworthy, too, that the March for Science is taking place the day before the French presidential election. In its second round this contest may lead to a pivotal choice between National Front candidate Marine Le Pen and far-left candidate Jean Luc Mélenchon.
Both hold extreme and unrealistic positions on domestic growth and employment that, rather than solve France’s economic problems, may well plunge all Europe deep into crisis.
Dispensing with the ivory tower
Interestingly, in my hometown of Maastricht, Netherlands, the initiative to join the March for Science originated not with university professors but with scientists and researchers from the private sector.
It was the multinational global science company DSM and the local campus of the health and sustainability research centre Brightlands that particularly helped garner interest in marching along with the US.
These places are less “ivory tower” than Greek “agora”: meeting places where scientists on the ground interact with their fellow citizens, traders, businesses – even politicians.
Perhaps, in Europe, we are marching on Saturday not because we’ve been silenced but because, for too long, we’ve locked ourselves away in our labs, cosseted by our universities, with research excellence assessed and guaranteed by peers.
Thanks to Donald Trump, scientists have woken up. Let’s hope it’s not too late.