The interplay of science and activism


This is a guest post by Lirael.

I’m a grad student in the sciences. I’m also an activist. I spend most of my time doing one of those two things. So Amy’s recent post got me thinking about science and activism and how they mix. What do you do when needed public attention to some issue in your field turns out to be lacking in scientific literacy (or understanding of the business of science)? How, in general, do science and politics interact? What are the implications of those interactions?

When we talk about making things political, what we typically mean is reducing them to soundbites or partisan battles. But if you think of politics in a broader sense, most things are political, or at least have political implications, including science. Study on the speed and potential effects of climate change is political. Which diseases get prioritized in research funding is political. How diseases are defined is political (look up the controversy around women, the CDC, and AIDS in the early 1990s). Robotics, with its wide variety of applications, including politically charged ones like defense, manufacturing, and agriculture, is political. Politics is about people’s lives, and science affects people’s lives – isn’t that one of the reasons that many of us got into it?

Funding isn’t apolitical either. Within some fields of math and computer science, there’s significant controversy about NSA funding. One reason that I stopped working for defense contractors was my discomfort with how the funding source affected how we were thinking about the potential applications of our own work – for instance, thinking of, and presenting, work on fast pattern classification in terms of its usefulness in missile guidance rather than its usefulness in classifying ventricular arrhythmias or diagnosing retinal disorders. Or thinking of and presenting work on indoor robot navigation in terms of military applications rather than civilian emergency assistance, room cleaning, etc. And concerns about funding and conflicts of interest, especially in a biotech context, leading to bad/biased science aren’t limited to people who are clueless about how science funding works.

The Avaaz campaign pitch has a lot of cluelessness, as we’ve noted. They don’t seem to get how science is done – they think they’re going to change the field by funding a single study? They don’t consider how their funding might be just as likely to introduce bias into the science that they fund as any other funding. They don’t explain how they’re going to find a lab to fund. They don’t appear to know the state of bee research very well, or if they do, they’ve sacrificed that in the name of a more easily accessible funding pitch. So what do scientists do with this? What do activists do with this? What’s a better model than this campaign? What can we do to help ensure that people who are committed to action on the problems that affect their lives understand the science behind it?

I’ve been active in my state’s climate justice movement over the last year, and one of the things that struck me was how many scientists there were at the protests. I’ve participated in a lot of social movements, and let me tell you, that is not something that you usually see. There was a time when I was in a group doing jail support (where you wait outside a jail for arrestees to be released so that you can give them food and water and first aid and emotional support), and a tenured physicist, who was also part of the jail support group, gave an impromptu lecture on introductory thermodynamics to a group of interested fellow protesters to pass the time. I’ve gotten rides to events with people who tell me about their research in geology or atmospheric science. One of the major local organizers is on leave from a math PhD program. I’ve been on a six-day march where one evening, after we got to our camp site, we sat around and had a Q&A with a photovoltaics guy about the current state of solar energy. These people add a lot to the movement. They participate in a variety of ways, and they also educate. The climate justice movement has been bringing scientists to teach-ins, to improve other participants’ scientific literacy, for years.

Another interesting model is the Union of Concerned Scientists , which started as a project of MIT students and faculty in 1969. They produce layperson-friendly issue briefings (including on science funding as well as on relevant science and engineering issues themselves), produce original research and analysis, run scientifically-literate petition campaigns, and much more. Many of their issue briefings contain “What You Can Do” pages for laypeople, and they have an activist toolkit on their site.

Layperson activists can play important roles in the politics of science. In the first example that pops into my head, the often-confrontational AIDS action group, ACT UP, which was not exactly known for its nuance, won lower prices per patient for AIDS treatments, accelerations in FDA review of treatments, and improved NIH guidelines for clinical trials. Were there ACT UP participants who reduced complex issues of funding, safety, and research pace, to simplistic talking points? Yes. Did they sometimes say things that were unfair to well-meaning scientists? Probably. But they got results – working together with scientist-activist mentors like organic chemist Dr. Iris Long.

If you think that a movement is trying to support a worthy cause but is missing important points (or making wrong ones) with their sloganeering, help them come up with better slogans (yes, you need slogans, not just journal articles, in any form of activism) and better talking points.