The interplay of science and activism

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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.

Inequality in computer science curricula

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This is a guest post by Lirael.

I’m a PhD student in computer science at a university where most of the undergrads come from pretty affluent, educationally privileged backgrounds (as I did myself, back in my undergrad days).  I’m a teaching assistant and/or tutor for a couple of different programs that we have for students who are not from such backgrounds.  One is for students who are motivated but have been educationally disadvantaged in some way (whether this was poverty, major illness in high school, an unstable housing situation, war in their home country, or any other life circumstance that would have left them at a disadvantage in their schooling), who take catch-up classes as a cohort and get extensive advising in order to prepare them for a full undergrad program.  The other is for students who are first-generation college students or who come from families with incomes below 150% of the poverty line, and gives them free tutoring, extensive advising, career prep, and leadership development.  Some students are in both programs.  Neither program is exclusively for students of color or poor students, but in practice, most of my students are both.

Computer science has unusual status compared to most science, social science, and humanities programs, because so many people associate it so strongly with a quick and direct path to good jobs.  There is some truth to this association – when I graduated from college at 22 and started my first industry job, I had a salary that put me in the top 20% of all US wage earners, plus excellent benefts and good working conditions.  This gives computer science obvious appeal for my students (and for other marginalized groups — I have a friend, a trans woman, who teaches at a program to ecnomically empower other trans people by teaching them to code).  It also makes it very popular at, for example, many community colleges.

My concern, though, is what sort of computer science marginalized and underrepresented groups are learning in the name of economic advantage.

Some community colleges have excellent offerings, of the sort that will prepare their students well for upper-level classes.   In others, the curriculum seems to be dominated by courses that could be described as “How to use a currently-popular technological tool for immediate commercial applications.”  Sometimes they are “Intro to a currently-popular computer language.”  There’s generally a data structures class, but not much else on the more foundational side of CS.  Some four-year departments like this approach too.  The thing is that in the tech world most of these skills and languages are likely to be archaic in a few years – I don’t often see job listings asking for people who know Pascal or BASIC or who can hand-write websites in HTML or make an eye-catching GeoCities site, all of which were in the currently-popular category when I was in high school.  The CS programs, much more than, say, the biology or history programs, stress the idea that this is vocational training.  Again, I don’t want to imply that every community college or state non-flagship is doing this, but I have noticed that plenty do, especially community colleges.

At schools where the idea that learning specific current tools = employability doesn’t drive the curriculum quite so hard –- which includes affluent schools with affluent student bodies — students focus on subjects like AI, algorithms, operating systems, robotics, computational biology, distributed computing, software design.  They learn specific currently-popular skills in class projects or paid industry internships where they apply, say, AI to creating Android apps, or software design to creating a new video game.  They don’t seem to have a problem getting good tech jobs after they graduate.  Meanwhile, if a student from a vocationally-focused school wants to transfer to a prestigious one, will they be prepared for the classes at the new school?  Will their credits from the vocationally-focused classes transfer?

Are there tech jobs where hiring managers care mostly that applicants have a list of buzzword Skills O’ the Day, and will seriously consider candidates whose whole CS education is an associate’s degree?  Yep.  What kinds of tech jobs, in general, are those?  The crappy tech jobs.  The code monkey jobs.  The ones that pay less.  The ones with less prestige and less respect.  The ones that get outsourced to developing countries.

I think it’s incredibly important that people be able to get jobs after they graduate from college.  It’s often more important for students from poor or working-class backgrounds, who don’t have family money to fall back on if they don’t get a job right away, so I understand why schools with many such students would be very concerned about employability.  But I worry that focus on vocational training will ironically lead to less employability, and less upward mobility, for the people who need it the most.  I also worry that increased focus on college as preparation for the workforce, which has had consequences already for the humanities and social sciences, will push computer science in the direction of vocational training.

I am not saying that there should be no vocational focus at all in computer science (indeed, some affluent schools have been criticized for not having enough of one) only that there needs to be balance.  The course that I TA is an intro to computer science course focused on game design.  Students learn basic computing and engineering concepts along with skills like how to create their own webpage and how to use game-creation software.  I make a point of talking about how they can use what they’re learning in other fields, like biology or public health or economics, as well, since after all not all of them want to go into computer science.  My hope is that they’ll get something out of it no matter what field they go into, and that if they do want to continue in computer science, they’ll be well-prepared to do so.