Balancing science and the need to be politically active

Many fine articles have been written on the need for scientists to find the right “work-life balance.” Most of the time, the meaning of a work-life balance is equated with identifying a healthy balance between the need to dedicate significant time and energy in one’s scientific career together with spending time with one’s family. Finding the “right balance” has always been a difficult and moving target, with tenure coming early in one’s career, and often in parallel with major family and personal events, such as pregnancy and the birth of children. However, more recently I have been considering a different work-life balance—a balance between work (science) and being politically active.

Compared to other academics, scientists have always been particularly slow to enter the political scene—and even then, only funding issues seem to resonate with many scientists. But in the light of recent events over the last 2 years—with emphasis on the last brutal 72 hours that include attempted assassinations of political figures and critics of Trump, the murder of two African Americans, the killing of 11 Jewish worshippers at a synagogue, and the injury of several law enforcement officers, scientists need to speak out.

Scientists have traditionally felt that they are “above politics;” after all, we are involved in endeavors that are critical to human health. Scientists have always maintained the necessity of “focusing on one’s research” and “not being distracted.” But now, with a country fighting for its morality, this is no longer an excuse for not speaking out.

Political differences are legitimate. I may think that the tax cuts recently approved by the government are bad policy—that they are heavily weighted to those wealthy people that don’t need them, and that they do not help middle and lower classes enough. But elections have consequences, and all that is legitimate policy debate. However, when the president does not stand up, time after time, and whole-heartedly condemn racism, racists and white supremacists, this is not a policy issue. This is an issue of who we are and what we stand for. It’s an issue of survival—the survival of morality of this nation. It is a time for all people, scientists included, to stand up and speak loudly.

Do I think Trump is an anti-semite? I don’t know; his Jewish son-in-law and family is often cited as proof of his tolerance. I do know that this president has trafficked in conspiracy theories and many of them involve attacks on African Americans. Some examples: his failure to accept the legitimacy of President Barrack Obama, his attack on African American athletes, his diatribes on African American Congresswoman Maxine Waters and her supposed “low IQ,” his refusal to accept that the 5 men originally convicted and later found innocent of the brutal attack and rape of a Central Park jogger were indeed innocent. And, of course, his stream of insults and attacks on Hispanics and those from “shithole countries.” So while Trump may not fit a classic definition of an anti-semite, white nationalists and supremacists see the “whole package.” To them, Jews are just another “non-white” invader of their white hegemony, like blacks or browns—just perhaps harder to discern. And it is well known that tolerating one form of racism provides license for other forms. So when Trump unleashes his racist propaganda—Jews and every minority are potential victims.

Wrote Martin Niemoller, who was later quoted by Brecht:

“First of all, they came to take the gypsies
and I was happy because they pilfered.
Then they came to take the Jews and I said nothing,
because they were unpleasant to me.
Then they came to take homosexuals,
and I was relieved, because they were annoying me.
Then they came to take the Communists,
and I said nothing because I was not a Communist.
One day they came to take me,
and there was nobody left to protest.”

Fellow scientists—it is time to say something. Before they take our pipettes away, together with any remainder of the truth. For those scientists in the US—truth is on the ballot, so make sure you vote.

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 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. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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