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Standing Up by Sitting Down

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I have a sticker on my laptop that says, “Stand Up for Science.” Nice, but how do you really stand up for science?

One way to stand up for science is to be visible, en masse, with your friends. You can organize marches or join existing marches. The March for Science may be the most well-known example of this—millions of people, many of the them practicing scientists, peaceably assembling in cities around the world. And the March for Science isn’t a one-time thing; there are lots of ongoing actions that you can find taking place at scientific societies and organizations around the country and world.

You can follow and inform federal policy. AAAS (the American Association for the Advancement of Science) has the most rigorous and consistent set of tools for looking at federal budgets. The American Institute of Physics, especially its FYI resource center, managed by Mike Henry, is a great resource for more insight on federal science policy. For a focus on geoscience, Science Policy at AGU is up to date, accurate and active, and the American Meteorological Society’s Policy Program provides a thoughtful approach to the weather and climate side. For a very up-to-the-minute and deep dive into climate-related science policy, Missy Stultz produces a vivid weekly newsletter called science-to-action. (Reach out if you’d like a connection.)

But don’t neglect efforts at smaller scales. State legislatures may not invest in science research, but they make decisions that impact science policy, and they can be powerful allies at the federal level. The same is true for large cities, and for the coalitions of smaller cities that are working together through organizations like the National League of Cities. Climate change adaptation, for example, is one area where states and cities are moving faster to act than the federal government. The point here isn’t to criticize federal climate policy but to show that the federal level isn’t the only place science-related policy happens. You can stand up for science locally.

And you should. In fact, what I most want to say in this blog is that the local arena is the place where our efforts to stand up for science can be most productive, especially if we are thinking in the long term.  Regardless of how you feel about any particular moment or leader, the long view reminds us that there is always another opportunity and the potential for a change in approach. In the words of a Turkish proverb, you are never too far down the wrong road to turn back.

So, how do you stand up for science locally?

Locally, we aren’t only scientists, we are friends, colleagues, and neighbors. We are the people you run into at the market, the people who hold the door open when your hands are full, and the people who help you jump your car when the battery dies. That local connection is our strength, and our science can be piece of that—a special kind of jumper cables to offer a neighbor when they need it and want it.

So, as scientists, the most important thing we can do to stand up for science is to sit down, listen, and find a way to contribute.  Sit down with your neighbors and figure out, together, what you can do to make the neighborhood better. Show up at a city council meeting and listen to the conversation. Volunteer at school, partly to share your science, but partly to understand what kids are worried about. (Tip, talk to the teacher, first and ask how your science could contribute to his or her curriculum and be patient if the fit isn’t immediate or it takes a while.) Give talks at rotary clubs or senior centers but spend most of your time asking and listening. Host an open science night at your favorite bar and pay attention to what people ask about and what they care about. Reach out to local leaders, including informal leaders, and ask them about what they are tackling. Don’t be afraid to try out new or unusual places—churches, after-school centers, community groups. And in all of this, the most important thing is to listen for ways that the science you know, or the scientists you know, might be useful.

To go even further, think about how you can be a neighbor to folks not only in your current community but in the community where you grew up. Many of us have relocated to pursue education and postdocs and careers. While it’s not your fault you had to move away, this relocation contributes to the disconnect. Think about how you might be able to engage with your hometown, at least in a small way.  I owe something to Rockford, Ill., the Midwestern city I grew up in that is struggling hard with the transition to a post-industrial economy.

In the end, I really believe the most effective long-term strategy for standing up for science is to sit down and offer science, with humility, as something useful. I think this approach is critical to long term, bipartisan, universal support for science. That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t do other things to stand up for science, like lobby or march, but we can’t do it at the expense of offering science as a way of contributing to a better world. And we can’t do that without sitting down, as equals, with our neighbors and figuring out how our science fits in. Standing up, in this case, means sitting down.


Beyond the Loading Dock

In a recent blog, I asked about how to stand up for science.  That led me to another question, why do we even need to stand up for science? How did we get here, and what do we need to differently to move on?

I think the need to stand up for science stems (sorry for the pun, get it, STEM?), at least in part, from a disconnect between science and society writ large. Some of that is that science and science education are subject swept up in a bigger pattern.  There seems to be a growing impatience with experts, academics, consultants, and other big-city pointy-heads, and scientists are caught up in that.

The academic/expert backlash isn’t completely off-base.  Jim Duderstadt, who was then the president of the University of Michigan in 2005, pointed out the cost of a four-year education at UM was more than the average annual Michigan income. What does it even mean to be a state school, he asked, when most of the residents can’t afford to go?  Why should anyone trust science, or anything else from a place they can’t even access?

While some of that disconnect is part of trends bigger than science, some of it is on us. After World War II, we set up a system of science funding that assumed innovation would flow from federal investment in science. And it did—AAAS estimates that 50% of our growth in GDP can be connected to federal investment in R&D. Heck, the transistor alone might be enough to justify the entire research outlay for the last 50 years, let alone the internet. (What would we do without cat videos, anyway?)

But at the same time, that assumption that innovation would “flow” allowed too many of us scientists to focus on the production of science and not enough of us to focus on the ways in which science could serve society. It’s led to an entire structure that is excellent at producing science, but perhaps less good at connecting science to people’s lives, engaging people in science, or inviting people into science. And “less good” becomes “worse” when you think about people who have less money and power—the same people who are more likely to experience the downsides of innovations, and less likely to reap the benefits.

In all of this, science has developed its own norms and practices—like peer review and journals—that are great for producing science but not very good at connecting science to anything outside of itself. The result is that science winds up looking like something done by distant people who don’t look or act like you, who work in different places, and who have their own unique and somewhat impenetrable systems for deciding what is good and worthwhile.

How do we stand up for that?

The answer, I think, is to work with your neighbors and offer your expertise where you live and work. To stand up by sitting down.  It is easy to distrust distant people who aren’t like you and don’t share your experience. But it is harder to distrust your neighbor who is trying to solve a problem with you.


Sarah Wilkins subscriber

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