The good and bad of the science march in 4 signs

Last Saturday I participated in my first ever protest. Wow, hard to believe that at (censored) years old and I’ve never done one before. I guess I never really thought they worked all that well for starters. But as much as I support science and think it needs more advocation, I was hesitant to march in this one.

My greatest fear was to politicize something that’s inherently not supposed to be political, but in reality is often so. Lately, it’s gotten political enough that a statement from the scientists was necessary. So when tens of thousands of protesters marched down Market Street in San Francisco, I found myself among them, taking in the spectacle, or more accurately, the signs. And the signs give us the best way to understand why people were marching, both for good and potentially for bad.

#1

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The first thing you have to realize is that this started way before Trump. Scientific research funding has been dropping for years. In the early 2000’s, scientists complained loudly that the short-sighted cuts to basic research funding would ultimately harm our country. At that time, they complained that the NIH had cut funding from the top 18% of applications to the top 12% (that’s from memory so don’t quote me, but you get the idea. I know, I’m very scientific with my stats). With the GOP in control of the purse strings and sequestration on top of it, things have only gone downhill from there.

The implications of this are serious in three ways. First, is the economic argument. The United States has about 3 times as many Nobel Prizes and the next highest country (the U.K.). We don’t win these just because we’re intrinsically better. We don’t even win them because we fund more research. We win them because we fund more BASIC research, the stuff that industry has no interest in because there’s no clear outcome or profit. Those that insist we only research things with a clear payoff miss this point entirely. How many fewer jobs would this country have without the discovery of DNA or antibodies or basic biochemical pathways? It’s measured in millions, not thousands. That all came from basic public research with no known outcome.

Second, as funding gets tighter, it gets concentrated in only the most proven labs. The big schools, the proven investigators, the biggest names, the most promising projects. But most of the real breakthroughs did not come from a Nobel Prize winner at Harvard, but by a lowly untenured professor or even grad student, often at less prestigious schools. They eventually get hired by the Harvards of the world, but their best ideas came in their youth before all the accolades. We’re losing many of the best ideas because we aren’t spreading the money around.

Lastly, we are losing a generation of scientists. Yes, we need more of them than we can train for private industry, but the academic labs of america are already suffering from a shortage of young talent leading their own labs. This isn’t something you can turn around by increasing this year’s budget. This has taken a generation to create and will take a generation to reverse, assuming we don’t keep making it worse. Not to mention that fewer labs mean fewer graduate students and Post-Docs to become the next generation of scientists for public or private research.

#2

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For the last 5 years, I’ve made my living in data analytics. Often we’re asked to give our perspective on an issue, but the prior head of our group discouraged this. “We have the data” he would say. If you present it well, you don’t have to take a position, because the facts speak for themselves.  Ideally science would be that way too.

But the problem comes when people don’t like what the facts themselves. This is human nature and nothing new. But lately, we’ve seen a systemic effort to undermine not just science, but ANY credible authority. The Chairman of the House Science Committee just said this week that the Journal of Science, the single most important publication in the history of human knowledge, was “not known as an objective writer or magazine.” You can’t even parody this stuff anymore.

And the facts disagree with republicans a LOT lately. We KNOW AS FACT that man is causing the earth to warm and that evolution happened. But it’s not just republicans at fault here. Liberals who claim to tout science will stand up and scream about how vaccines are causing Autism. Perhaps the most ironic thing I saw on the science march was a group of women singing a song about how GMO’s were evil, and not a hint of sarcasm or irony from them. People tend to like science when the facts support them, and ignore it or oppose it when it doesn’t.

#3

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There were a whole bunch of smarmy science is good signs out there. And while it’s hard to argue with them, it’s also one of the biggest dangers facing science today. Too many people just yell “SCIENCE” and think that wins any argument. And every time that’s done, the other person walks away skeptical of science. It’s kind of the opposite of the “just the facts” approach I mentioned above, because rather than winning on the weight of facts, they just claim science as the intellectual high ground and walk away with nose held high. At its worst, it becomes a religion that very much competes with Christianity and other faiths. As much as I say science and religion can coexist, I understand why Christians feel under assault by science as a competing religion.

Slate had an excellent article about the ironies of the science march, in that many of those marching didn’t really understand science. They just liked the idea of it.

It doesn’t make it any easier that science is often abused even by scientists themselves. The harder something is to prove, the more likely you are to read about it in the newspaper with a headline like “chocolate cures cancer” or “eggs cause cancer” or “people who sleep less than 4 hours are happier.”

The problem seems worst among uncelebrated researchers looking for some attention, and made even more so by the press who mainly just wants clicks.

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But is the steady drumbeat of these studies and articles that undermines both the very concept of science and the layperson’s faith in it, and that’s well before we get to the outright fraud that accompanies controversial topics. This was getting steadily worse for years before the straw…err…anvil that broke the camel’s back…

#4

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Let’s be honest. Many of those marching were really marching about Trump. Scientists have been getting pushed and pushed for years and this was the final, 200 pound, straw. In the past, the ignorance of the anti-science crowd was limited to less important people like…the Chairman of the Senate Environment Committee :-/  But the President always at least gave lip service to being open to science and its funding. Trump’s all out war on scientifically accepted positions and gashing of the research budget was the spark that lit the already dry kindling. We may not want technocrats running the country, but for Pete’s sake can we at least agree on the color of the sky? When the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community says one thing, then maybe we should take that as a working fact.

So where does this leave us? Will anything come of the march? My guess is that those who are steeped in conservative media will reject its message, culturally if for no other reason, and see this as proof that science is political and therefore not credible. Those that already sympathize will feel good, but we need them to do more than pat themselves on the back. They must become politically active. CALL YOUR CONGRESSMAN! Until we start holding our politicians accountable to evidence-based policy this will continue to get worse. And it may take a generation to dig out of.

And to send you off on a good note, my favorite sign from last weekend.

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