The March for Science: Can and should politics be absent?

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Since the crowning of the current US administration, the scientific community in the US has not only been reeling from the proposed cuts to almost every type of scientific research in this country, but also from the quandary of what to do about it. Scientists have been all over the map, embracing everything from encouraging active scientists to run for public office, to quiet, behind the scenes attempts to advocate the economic value of scientific research, with the notion that this will be a more palatable argument to those in power.

As a member of the American Society for Cell Biology’s Public Policy Committee, I was aware of discussions that went back to the earliest days of the administration, when immediate attacks were made on the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA and other agencies that deal with anything related to the effects of mankind on our planet. At the time, many biomedical scientists that I talked to were of the opinion that “this can’t happen to us;” that whereas the environment has become a politicized issue, pitting big business and industry against environmental protection, there nonetheless remains overwhelming support for biomedical research. I disagreed with this approach then, and I disagree now.

For anyone who doubts the historical tendencies of people in power to ‘divide and conquer’—to start with “easy targets” and attack them first, followed up by attacks on more and more targets, hitting closer and closer to home—until finally almost everyone but the attacking party is targeted, please have a look at this poignant reminder from the “Life of Brian.”

In other words, scientists should come to the rescue of their fellow scientists, whenever they are under attack—and not sit on the sidelines hoping that the importance and value of their work may (strong emphasis on the word “may”) enjoy a more general consensus. As I have implied, it does not work like that.

Science is society’s ongoing attempt to understand things, to get to the truth of the matter. It is an elusive goal, with moving goal posts. As technologies advance, our understanding and interpretations of science often becomes even more complex. Always moving forward, in the long run, although often subject to the 1 step forward—2 steps backward phenomenon. But at any given time, there will always be the most rational, logical and explanation, and that interpretation based on scientific evidence, falls under the jurisdiction of principles devised by our namesake, William of Ockham, back in the 1300s. In layman’s terms, his ideas have been paraphrased as “The simplest and most logical explanation is the most likely one.”

Scientifically, how would that work? Well, as an example, if one were presented with 2 photos taken from an identical vantage point, with A showing masses of people covering the entire print from top to bottom and side to side, while B showed large gaps or areas where no people were present, what could we conclude? Yes, in the millisecond that the photo was taken, all of the people in B may have simply ducked their heads and thus are not viewed properly in the photo. Or they may have been momentarily abducted be an alien spacecraft before being returned to the throngs of people immediately after the photo was taken. We can find many such “explanations,” but it is obvious that there were simply more people present in photo A. So when people in a position of power explicitly lie, and claim that there were more people in photo B, scientists, and the general population need to rise up in relentless protest. Because once such lies have become acceptable, the rest of society will be lost—and science of course will be among the severe and immediate casualties.

Having said this, it is incumbent upon each and every one of us, scientist and non-scientist, to continue our protests on the attack against the truth. In every way possible. Letters to congressmen and women, senators, the president, newspapers. Science, and truth must be made a national priority. But in today’s March for Science, my view is that we should refrain as much as possible from singling out individuals and administrations. That we should refrain today, in this mass rally for science, from affixing blame and turning the march into JUST a protest. We should give the citizens of this country and all administrations, at least to date, credit for wisely, and in many cases, apolitically, supporting many branches of science with much foresight—and encourage today’s leaders to continue these policies that have served this country—and the world as a whole—so well until now.

And tomorrow, should the message not be internalized—we need to fight like hell.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising. http://www.stevecaplan.net
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