I grew up in the ’60s and never attended a demonstration. I am now in my 60s and seriously thinking about going to my first one—the March for Science in April. What gives?
Although there have been attacks on science for decades, these have escalated now that Donald Trump is the President of the United States. He has proudly proclaimed that he doesn’t believe that vaccines are safe (thus energizing the anti-vaccine movement) or that climate change is real. He has frozen scientific grants and limited communication about climate change at the Environmental Protection Agency and other government agencies.
Canada also has its share of science deniers, and our governments have also stifled the voices of scientists. Large corporations and small entrepreneurs attack science if it suits their bottom line: tobacco companies denied the effects of smoking, oil companies debate the existence of climate change, local organic grocery stores exaggerate the health benefits of organic food. Although the Trump administration’s attack on science feels unusually deliberate and malicious, there are plenty of reasons to march for science in Canada.
If that’s the “why” of marching, what should we march for? What can we do so the march does more than just make us feel good?
The march should celebrate the importance of science. Without science we wouldn’t have the drugs that have saved the lives of millions of people with HIV or the laptop I am typing this piece on. We do not acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of science enough, and that alone is a good reason to march.
Marchers need to make the point that not all science is good science. Methods matter. Science that is poorly done leads to results that are wrong and can have huge negative impacts – witness Wakefield’s fraudulent research that has helped spawn the anti-vaccine movement. I am not sure what the pithy slogans are here, but we need some.
The March for Science should advocate for the open sharing of the results of all studies. This has several advantages. It allows scientists to critique each other’s studies, and to replicate each other’s results. Sharing research also allows other scientists to build upon that work and advance knowledge more quickly. Hiding results because they are politically awkward or hurt a company’s bottom line means that important public policy will be informed by science that is incomplete, which is a recipe for bad decisions. Advances in science and good public policy depend upon openness.
Much has been written about how government and industry suppress science that goes against their beliefs or bottom line. However, as we march, academically based scientists can’t be too smug. We sometimes suppress scientific results ourselves, do bad science and inappropriately hype our work.
We have a long history of publication bias, where studies that show negative results or go against conventional wisdom are less likely to be published. A disturbingly high number of studies, some conducted in the world’s most highly regarded research institutes, are not reproducible. All scientists need to use this march to push themselves to do better.
We need to acknowledge that science and politics will always be intertwined. How much government spends on science is itself a political decision. Policy making must be informed by science, but it will never be based on science alone. If we want to decrease the health effects of diabetes, the options available are almost unlimited. To name just a few, we could regulate food advertising to children, design cities to encourage exercise, support aboriginal people to decrease the frequency of diabetes in remote rural communities, and help people with diabetes more effectively manage their disease with drugs. But resources are limited. Choices need to be made and those choices will be influenced by a range of factors beyond pure science.
Marches can be important events. But they last only hours. Looking beyond April 22, what else should scientists do?
We need more scientists in public office. Remarkably few scientists become politicians, likely because scientific culture has traditionally seen politics as something impure that others do. It’s time for that to change.
Many lawyers and business people are making decisions at our provincial legislatures and in Ottawa. They bring their professional experiences and ways of thinking to crucial policy decisions, and that’s a good thing. We need more scientists doing the same – bringing their understanding of the importance of science and the scientific method to the policy table. I am too old to contemplate the rigors of a political campaign. However, I will be encouraging the young scientists I mentor, if I think they have the aptitude for it, to consider a career in politics.
Scientists need to become more involved in talking about science with the public in the venues and language the public uses – on Twitter, Facebook groups and radio talk shows. Tim Caulfield is a master at that, and it requires a skill set that not all scientists have. It’s a lot of work and Caulfield
has the thick skin needed to withstand the criticisms he often gets from those who disagree with him. But without more scientists like him, science is at a serious disadvantage. We need to train our scientists to be effective communicators, encourage them to do so and reward them appropriately.
Finally, we need to involve the public more in science – in priority setting, in designing the research, and in communicating the results. These citizens will not only positively influence the science that is done, but over time they will become advocates for the importance of good science and will be marching with us.