This One’s Optimistic

One of the perks of living within a reasonable driving distance of Washington D.C. is that you get to be around for major events.  Over the weekend I was present for two events that directly addressed the current and future state of science in the United States, one as a participant and the other as an observer.  Each of these events approached the subject of science’s future in different ways with different motivations, but had enough in common that they combined to give me a sense of cautious optimism I haven’t had since January 21st.

The event I was directly involved with was the Smithsonian Earth Optimism Summit, a weekend-long conference bringing together professionals, researchers, and students to discuss what’s working and what can be improved in conservation.  Talks and discussion sessions were geared towards general audiences, and at no point did any of the sessions seem cheesy in the way TED talks can sometimes get.  In fact, most of them were downright reasonable and often inspiring.  In the Movement of Life session, researchers showed how emerging technologies are allowing us to track everything from deforestation to migratory mammals, while also providing incredible opportunities to bring in citizen scientists.  The At Home with Conservation session provided great examples of easy ways people can protect biodiversity in their own yards, schools, and neighborhoods.  The Restoring Nature session proved that even in the most broken places, nature can return and even thrive if only we can give it a boost then get out of the way while it does its thing.  The Make for the Planet event saw teams competing to develop new ways of solving conservation problems.

Of course it was impossible to ignore the other science-related event going on in Washington (and worldwide) on Saturday, the March for Science.  While most of my Saturday was devoted to helping with or attending parts of the Earth Optimism Summit, I did steal away just in time to see the beginning of the march itself.  The March for Science has certainly had its share of growing pains, particularly with the organizers’ treatment (or lack thereof) of diversity in the lead-up to the event.  However, the day of the march itself, based on the accounts of others who were there much longer than I was, seemed to live up to its potential, with thousands showing up on the National Mall despite some gross weather.  In the too-brief time I was out there among the crowd, I saw not just established and well-known scientists, but grad students, undergrads, high school students, people of all ages who appreciate the process and contributions of science regardless of their own background.  Also more people in those inflatable T. rex costumes than I’ve ever seen in one place.  As Ed Yong noted in his recap of the march, the movement seemed to find its voice at the right time.

Though both the Earth Optimism Summit and the March for Science were very different events in execution, they both proved the importance of science as the best set of tools we have for solving the big problems facing our world.  The summit showed why these tools are worth defending, and the march showed that the people willing to do the defending extend into walks of life far beyond academic and government science.  This apparently wasn’t lost on attendees of either event, as there was quite a bit of overlap in speakers at both the summit and the march, and marchers and summit attendees could be seen constantly streaming in and out of the doors of the conference center as they moved between events.

However, in order for the pro-science movement to endure, a couple major issues need addressing.  As mentioned before, the March for Science had some very public problems maintaining a coherent and adequate commitment to diversity leading up to the march itself that at times devolved into internet harassment and members of the organizing committee walking out.  Diversity is essential to science and it’s not hyperbole to say that the consequences of a collapse of science will reach into every aspect of human existence.  To deny the importance of diversity and representation in science in favor of seeming “less partisan” is to hamstring the very potential that science has to benefit humanity.  Which brings me to the next issue: this persistent push to make science seem “apolitical.”

Science is ideally non-partisan, but it has never been apolitical.  Science exists in society and is deeply affected by the things that affect the human beings existing within and around it.  To say that science is some perfect philosophy that always finds the right answer without any interference from the prejudices of the time is simply inaccurate.  To say that science should strive to be apolitical when one particular political party is responsible for the vast majority of the recent hostility towards scientists (and even the concept of facts) is simply inaccurate.  Scientists should always report the reality of their observations, and that includes identifying their attackers.  So in that spirit, I’m happy to accept support for science from Republicans, but after all their shenanigans the onus is on them to come to the table in good faith, and also to kindly knock off all the scientifically indefensible agendas like climate change denial, politically-motivated funding cuts, meddling with women’s health, discrimination based on race and gender identity, and the rest of that very, very long list.

There’s a lot of work to do to make American science great again, but this past weekend made me feel a lot better about it.  This work is worth doing, and a lot of people seem to be willing to chip in if we’ll invite them.

Author disclosuremy current research is part of the Smithsonian Movement of Life Initiative, parts of which were presented at the Earth Optimism Summit.  As always opinions are mine alone and don’t represent those of any of my employers, funding sources, affiliated groups, or even friends and family members.