Thoughts On “The Nonpartisan Nerd Parade”

To use Buzzfeed’s phrase. Hughes (boldface mine):

The programming could be called a lot of things. Inspiring, maybe. Nerdy. Wholesome. Boring. But it was not in any way controversial. And in that way it felt like a missed opportunity, bizarrely disconnected from the crowd of thousands, many holding cutting signs about the president’s hair, hands, skin color, intellect, tweets, and policies. Because for the people in the streets, it wasn’t just a march in support of science, it was a march against the President’s anti-science policies. Yet the march’s leadership, in a bid for inclusion, shied away from that. That was a mistake.

It was billed as the march for science. But just about everyone actually marching, even the kids I talked to, was quick to say what the march was really about: Trump….

It’s not that a global pep rally for science is a bad thing, necessarily. It’s not in a scientist’s nature to opine from soapboxes (it’s why they write research papers in the passive voice). They’re much more comfortable advocating for facts and truth. The thing is, as Yale scholar Dan Kahan pointed out on Twitter, most people, no matter their political or religious orientation, agree that science makes our lives better. What we don’t all agree on is whether Trump is making good decisions.

As much as scientists may want their work to have bipartisan support, those days are long gone. For the past four years, the House Science Committee has become one of the loudest voices against climate science, repeatedly calling scientists “alarmist” and dishonest. Trump’s budget chief says that NIH funding should be cut because of “mission creep” and that climate research is “a waste of your money.” The president has suggested that vaccines — the greatest public health effort of the modern era — cause autism.

These are very real divides, but the march pretended they don’t exist. That neutral stance, however admirable, likely came at an opportunity cost. The march’s organizers had tens of thousands of motivated voices at their disposal. Would that energy have been better directed at electing Democrats in 2018? (The Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton tweeted support of the march.) Or fighting against Trump’s hostile stance on immigrants, who make up nearly 20% of the scientific workforce? Or convincing scientists to run for office themselves?

For the record, I attended the D.C. march. The problem, as I see it, is that the march had three main objectives (I’ll describe them in no particular order). The first was to increase diversity and to address issues facing historically marginalized groups (and I’m including immigration in this). Despite much of the online/Twitter heat about this, I think most march participants supported this. That said, parts of the left need to learn how to write a mission statement that doesn’t mangle English using Sociology 101 terminology (really, it didn’t help. At all). If phrased properly, this wouldn’t have been very partisan at all (unless you’re Attorney General and elite racist Jeff Sessions).

A second objective was to convince people to take scientific and scientists’ claims seriously (e.g., global warming). This is both political and, regrettably, partisan. It is political in that these problems require political solutions–and thus recognition by our political system. In the case of global warming, it is partisan in that the Republican Party has decided to pretend the overwhelming scientific consensus backed by multiple lines of evidence is wrong. It’s worth noting this wasn’t always the case: pre-Iraq war, many Republicans agreed that global warming was happening and that it was significantly affected by human activity, but many also argued it was too expensive to do anything about it. Lighting billions of dollars on fire for Our Excellent Middle East adventure kinda dinged the fiscal argument, leaving little choice but to assail the science. So there really isn’t any way around this, except to be political and partisan.

A third objective, one that I think was ignored by some march participants, was the issue of science funding. As we’ve written many times on this blog, if you claim to love science, but you don’t fund it, you don’t love science at all, you’re just ogling its butt (or grabbing it by the…). The actor James Earl Jones, when asked why he was doing commercials, responded, “You can be an actor or you can be unemployed. You can’t be an unemployed actor.” Ditto scientists. Funding matters–and if you’re worried about diversity issues (which is good!), ask yourself this: who gets hit the worst when funding gets cut? (Hint: not senior, white, male scientists).

The problem is that funding is a hard issue. It doesn’t neatly map onto party lines, but, at the same time, certain areas are quite partisan. For some funding areas, such as NIH, there are many Republicans who support maintaining funding, even increases. There are also those, of course, who want to cut things to pay for stupid tax cuts and that wall. This is where it gets tricky: if science is turned entirely into a partisan football, then Republicans, even in non-partisan areas of science, will be backed into a corner by Fox News et alia, and be pressured to slash funding. At the same time, there are cuts planned for completely partisan purposes (largely having to do with global warming) that are hideous. And we do like the concept of solidarity–we shouldn’t throw climate science overboard to ‘save’ medical science*. So the strategy here isn’t straightforward.

While this might seem craven to some, if you support Science, but aren’t willing to support actual scientists, which means both our research and our earning a living, well, again, you’re just ogling science’s butt. Science doesn’t happen without funding–and funding cuts wouldn’t be trivial in their effects on individual scientists. That is inherently a political issue (as are emergency medical services)–the government spends money. In some cases, it’s also a partisan issue. Splitting that difference is hard.

It’s also why, for better and for worse, I think there was a major push to keep the marches ‘non-partisan’ by some scientists.

*Or should we? I don’t like it, but there is a case to be made: the ethics of awful situations are not trivial.

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