Opinion: Should Scientists Engage in Activism?

Scientists who accept funding with the tacit agreement that they keep their mouths shut about the government are far more threatening to an independent academy than those who speak their minds.

By Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky | February 7, 2017

PIXABAY, OPENCLIPARTHave you heard that scientists are planning a march on Washington? The move is not being billed as a protest, but rather as a “celebration of our passion for science and a call to support and safeguard the scientific community,” although it comes as a direct response to recent policy changes and statements by the Trump administration.

Not everyone thinks the nonprotest protest is a good thing. It’s “a terrible idea,” wrote Robert Young, a geologist at Western Carolina University, in The New York Times. The march, Young said, will just reinforce a belief among some conservatives that “scientists are an interest group,” and polarize the issue, making researchers’ jobs more difficult. Others find that argument less than convincing, pointing out that science and politics have always been intertwined.

See “Will a March Help Science?

As the founders of the blog Retraction Watch and the Center for Scientific Integrity, we often see researchers reluctant to push for or embrace change—whether it’s to the conventional way of dealing with misconduct in journals (which for years was basically to not do so) or addressing problems of reproducibility of their experiments. To the timorous, airing dirty laundry, and letting the public in on the reality of science, could endanger public trust—and funding.

So this isn’t the first time scientists and engineers have voiced similar concerns. Take the example of Marc Edwards and his colleagues at Virginia Tech: To many people watching the Flint water crisis, they were heroes. After being asked to visit by concerned residents, they found, and announced, that people in the beleaguered city were being exposed to excessive amounts of lead through their tap water. They also launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for water filters for city residents and created a website to push their findings about the hazards of the city’s water supply and shame governments at all levels to act.

If not for their tireless efforts, thousands of children may have been exposed to dangerous amounts of lead for far longer than they already were. Even the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has acknowledged that it waited too long to sound the alarm.

But that’s not exactly how the editor of a leading engineering journal sees things.

In October, a remarkable editorial appeared in the journal Environmental Science & Technology (ES&T). The essay, by University of California, Berkeley, engineering professor and Water Center Director David Sedlak, ES&T’s editor in chief, expressed concern that some of his colleagues in the field had crossed the “imaginary line” between scientist and advocate.

“Speaking out against a corrupt or incompetent system may be the product of a culture where idealism, personal responsibility, and Hollywood’s dramatic sensibilities conspire to create a narrative about the noble individual fighting injustice,” Sedlak wrote.

By becoming “allies of a particular cause, no matter how just, we jeopardize the social contract that underpins the tradition of financial support for basic research.” In other words, don’t cross Congress—which many scientists already view as hostile to their profession—and risk retaliation in the form of budget cuts. That’s no small pie, either. Through its oversight of the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Energy, and other agencies and programs, Congress holds the strings to a research purse worth nearly $70 billion a year.

Let’s take a moment to absorb all that. Some (unnamed but easily identified) scientists, lulled by the media, have cast themselves as superheroes in a struggle against villains born of their own conceit. Their arrogance and vanity threaten to awaken the master, who will punish us all for the sins of a few. We rarely get the opportunity to watch a chilling effect in action, but you can almost see the breath of researchers caught up in a debate over the proper role of scientists in the crisis.

It’s not just engineers who fear speaking out. “We have too often been reluctant to voice our protest, for fear of incurring the [National Institute of Mental Health’s] displeasure (and losing whatever opportunities we still have for funding),” wrote neuroscientist John Markowitz in The New York Times last fall. In a refreshing piece, Markowitz was arguing that “there’s such a thing as too much neuroscience.” As cofounders of Retraction Watch, a blog that focuses on some of science’s nasty episodes, we are occasionally admonished that pointing out cases of fraud—even when we also praise good behavior—will give anti-science forces ammunition.

In some ways, we should be glad scientists are acknowledging these concerns, instead of pretending they’re never swayed by the almighty dollar. But anyone who clings to the notion that science exists in a pure vacuum, untainted by politics, economics, or social justice needs also to understand that science is a human endeavor and scientists have the same eyes and ears for injustice and outrage as the rest of us. Although the conduct of science demands honesty and rigor, nowhere is it written that researchers must remain silent when governments or other powerful players either misuse science or suppress findings in the service of harmful policies.

And before Edwards and his efforts on behalf of the Flint community, some scientists have spoken out. Claire Patterson, a physical chemist, put himself on a decades-long collision course with industry when he took on lead poisoning. John Snow earned the ire of Londoners when he removed the pump handle on a cholera-infested well, and wasn’t vindicated until after his death. It took Peter Buxtun several years to stop the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment; he eventually had to leak documents to reporter Jean Heller in 1972.

Edwards and his colleagues, we would argue, are part of a long tradition of bridging the worlds of science and policy. They have been instrumental in bringing not only attention but change to the beleaguered city of Flint. And money: Thanks in part to their pressure, the Senate in September voted overwhelmingly to approve $100 million in aid for Flint, and hundreds of millions more in loans from the EPA for upgrading municipal water infrastructures and studying exposure to lead.

In a stinging rebuke to Sedlak, Edwards and three coauthors—Amy Pruden, Siddhartha Roy, and William Rhoads—blasted the critical editorial as a “devastating, self-indictment of cowardice and perverse incentives in modern academia.”

Indeed, scientists who accept funding with the tacit agreement that they keep their mouths shut about the government are far more threatening to an independent academy than those who speak their minds.

Since November 8, it has been painfully clear that science will be playing defense for a while. The United States has never seen a regime so hostile to science and the value of the scientific method. President Donald Trump has declared climate change a “hoax” cooked up by the Chinese. He has flirted seriously with debunked anti-vaccination views and declared that polls (read, data) that are negative about his ambitions are “fake news.”

Science and politics are not always compatible. And science need not always triumph over policy: after all, research shows that steroids improve athletic performance, but we have a compelling political interest to ban them. The same can be said of eugenics. Research must always be ethical, and ethics is a conversation that includes scientists and policymakers.

Still, while the two domains are separate, the divide is, and should be, bridgeable. As Edwards and his colleagues write, “The personal and professional peril is great, the critics are numerous and vocal, but staying silent is to be complicit in perpetrating injustice. And no matter what may come of the rest of our lives or careers, we are certain of one thing: Flint was a community worth going out on a limb for, and by upholding a just cause, we enhanced the social contract between academics and the public.”

That could easily be said of the March for Science. Except now it’s not just a limb but the entire tree that’s in peril.

Ivan Oransky is a distinguished writer in residence at New York University’s Arthur Carter Journalism Institute. Adam Marcus is adjunct faculty for advanced academic programs at Johns Hopkins University. The Center for Scientific Integrity, of which Oransky is executive director and Marcus is editorial director, receives funding from the Arnold Foundation, the Helmsley Trust, and the MacArthur Foundation.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Avatar of: A_Scientist


Posts: 18

February 7, 2017

This is a 1-sided article by a couple of non-scientist rabble-rousers. There is no evidence, yet, that the Trump administration will be 'anti-science', despite what Mr. Trump has said about climate change etc. The only sensible activism on the part of scientists is to go out and educate the public. In schools and old-age homes and grocery stores and pubs. Fight University administrations that are undermining the tenure system with watered-down post-tenure reviews etc. Even if all those involved in scientific study are to congregate, it would be a pitifully small gathering. Any national protest march by scientists will look silly, will alienate the fiercely loyal Trump-supporters and will be detrimental to society overall.

Avatar of: Dick Gordon

Dick Gordon

Posts: 3

February 7, 2017

I have a long history of campaigning against the grant system in Canada, which may or may not have affected my success in getting grants. It's a limited protest domain, but the one I chose to be adept at, including publishing on it in peer reviewed journals. So I was in agreement with Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus until they got to Trump and climate change. I happen to be one of the "3%" who do not think there is a consensus on climate change or its causes. There is a danger in demanding that scientists agree with one another, and excluding those of us "who speak their minds". As the history of science has often shown, a minority of one can be right. Suppressing that minority, via grant refusals, publication refusals, or refusing to listen to them or collaborate because, in today's context, they agree with Trump's politics, is a disservice to science and the public who supports us. I agree we should not keep our mouths shut. But neither should we duct tape the mouths of scientists whose politics we oppose.

Avatar of: Rick Brick

Rick Brick

Posts: 4

February 7, 2017

I would not call our democratic political system a "regime."  Everyone has the freedom to express their personally held views of the government, but they have no right to impose them on others outside of the government.  I fell very confident that there may be more job opportunities for Americans in science under President Trump's administration.

Avatar of: Howard A. Doughty

Howard A. Doughty

Posts: 10

February 7, 2017

In February, 1967, as I was about to take up an appointment to my first job as a postsecondary educator at a large US state university, I clipped an article - "The Responsibility of Intellectuals " by Noam Chomsky - from the New York Review of Books. I have kept it close at hand ever since.

It told me not only that intellectuals - whether academic or not, and whether scientists or not - have a responsibility to tell the truth.

It also explained that this moral/ethical responsibility entailed speaking out against falsehood, propaganda, untethered ideology and authoritative limitations on the freedom to report scientific findings.

In Canada, the previous Conservative government of Stephen Harper actively suppressed government scientists (and social policy experts, whistleblowers and former diplomats). In the United States a (thankfully short-lived) ban on federal funding of any research project in political science not directly linked to homeland security or promoting and protecting American interests abroad showed what Congress could do. And in the ongoing processes of government, revelations about political interference are growing (see, for example, E.G. Vallianatos' "Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA").

Whether a national protest/celebration march is the optimal tactic or just one of many initiatives that the scientific community should support, one thing is clear: science, like all efforts in the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge, is a social project. It is inherently "political" insofar as we are all, as Aristotle said, "political animals" living in social arrangements in which questions of the public interest and power shape not only what questions will be asked but also what answers will be provided.

Now, as always, "academic freedom" must be protected. Research must not be wholly commercialized and influenced by any single sector and it must certainly not be put under the control of what General Eisenhower famously called "the military-industrial (and what I would expand to call "the military-industrial-financial-commercial-ideological") complex.

"A_Scientist" may comfort himself with the belief that "there is no evidence that the Trump administration will be 'anti-science'."

On the contrary, the new administration has already decided to vet any government scientist who has dared to work on the issue of climate change, is setting up to deregulate industry, commercialize knowledge and conflate its "values" with Christian fundamentalists and so on. If that ain't writing on the wall, nothing is.

Affirming the independence of scientific inquiry is not engaging in partisan political activity, but it is "political" - i.e., action in the best interest of the "polis."

Avatar of: True Scientist

True Scientist

Posts: 59

February 7, 2017

What a shameful writing in attempt to disguise their agenda!

"The United States has never seen a regime so hostile to science and the value of the scientific method."  What, "the regime" is shooting scientists and burning their books with precious scientific methods?

President Donald Trump has declared climate change a “hoax” ... The estimated increase in average global temperature by 0.2 C is a HOAX.

Avatar of: Sci_guy


Posts: 6

February 7, 2017

I agree with the thrust of A-Scientist's comments. This is very one sided, especially in this political environment.  Scientists should not be activists in a strong political sense except on scientific issues. And even then, their "activism" should be focused on informing, educating and working to correctly portray science and scientific facts in society.

It is far too early to separate the Trump administration from the rhetoric both in and outside the White House.  Looking at actions, not slogans, I see little evidence there is an ongoing attack on science.  I think it is unfortunate that the Administration has expressed doubts about Climate change, but on the other hand, this has always been a very hard topic for the public to appreciate.  It involves a concept of data that is totally foreign to everyday experience.  If anything this indicates a failure of science to educate.  Let's focus on our strengths as scientists and not be drawn into a contentious, vague and slogan driven conversation. 

Avatar of: James V. Kohl

James V. Kohl

Posts: 532

February 7, 2017

Excerpt: "Their arrogance and vanity threaten to awaken the master, who will punish us all for the sins of a few."

My comment: The masters of science have always been awake, and they are now on the side of the young earth creationists. Every aspect of neo-Darwinan pseudoscientific nonsense has been refuted with experimental evidence of endogenous RNA interference in nematodes.

The March on Washington has been left to pseudoscientists who failed to link energy-dependent RNA-mediated protein folding chemistry to biophysically constrained biodiversity in all living genera via the physiology of reproduction.

The fact that pseudoscientists also failed to link virus-driven energy theft to all pathology in species from bacteria to humans leaves anyone still touting mutation-driven evolution marching in the dark.

2016 Nobel Laureates, Ben Feringa (Chemistry) and Yoshinori Ohsumi (Physiology or Medicine) linked the sun's anti-entropic virucidal energy-dependent changes in chirality to autophagy and all pheromone-controlled biodiversity at a time when "Marchers" may claim they are not being treated fairly.

Avatar of: James V. Kohl

James V. Kohl

Posts: 532

Replied to a comment from Dick Gordon made on February 7, 2017

February 7, 2017

See for example: Nutrient-dependent pheromone-controlled ecological adaptations: from atoms to ecosystems

My invited review of nutritional epigenetics was submitted to the journal "Nutrients"  and returned without review.

See for comparison: Multipurpose plant sensors startle scientists

Evolutionary scientists did not predict such elaborate sensory integration in a single protein system.

What model have evolutionary theorists proposed for comparison to Darwin's "conditions of life" now that they have been linked from quantum physics and ecological variation to nutrient energy-dependent ecological adaptations in all living genera? 

Avatar of: Salticidologist


Posts: 58

February 7, 2017

Social causes are not science, but those who practice science are free to pursue any social, wildlife or funding causes that they choose to pursue.  Science per se comes with no "betterment of mankind" label.  It is more closely linked to technology, and what is done with that may be a social issue.  Man, the tool maker, has subjugated the planet but cannot stop making new tools and weapons.  Even the history of religion is secondary to the development of weapons technology.  We are coming to enjoy the company of our machines far more than the company of people, or the experience of nature.

If people really understand biology, they will learn about the central role of reproduction accompanied by migration, warfare, and demographic change.  At least people can learn to understand the selection pressures that have driven all aspects of human morphology and behavior.  People try to discover morality in science, but they really cannot find it there.

Avatar of: T S Raman

T S Raman

Posts: 51

Replied to a comment from A_Scientist made on February 7, 2017

February 8, 2017

I agree.

Avatar of: factotum666


Posts: 25

February 9, 2017

You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.

You probably thing that Lincoln said that.   But there is no evidence to support that

This is probably the original from two centuries earlier: One can fool some men, or fool all men in some places and times, but one cannot fool all men in all places and ages.


More importantly, Richard Feynman said "Nature cannot be fooled"  To which I add, and she ALWAYS has the last word.   Surprisingly enough there are some ways that people can see and think that reduce their chances of being fooled.

You may want to visit here:  http://xfoolnature.org/?p=10



Avatar of: PeterUetz


Posts: 11

Replied to a comment from A_Scientist made on February 7, 2017

February 15, 2017

There is very clear evidence that the Trump administration is anti-science, e.g. here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SkUgDCk0Xi4. Unfortunately, Pence is not the only creationist (and thus anti-science by definition) in the cabinet.

Yes, education is the most sensible activism but we also have to actively fight the bs coming out of the mouths of the most powerful men in the country (few women, unfortunately). And yes, civil discourse is certainly the best way, but have you ever had a civil discourse with a creationist? It's almost impossible as these guys simply ignore any evidence you may have.

Scientists indeed need to volunteer in schools or summer camps, but I am still a bit skeptical this will be enough to stem the tide of bible camps etc.

Avatar of: Salticidologist


Posts: 58

April 21, 2017



I associate marching and protests with a failure to communicate.  These are media events that do not really promote dialog.  Science and advocacy are separate subjects that should not be confused.  A single person can participate in both activities.  That is their right.  However, to label advocacy as a form of science is simply wrong.  Science can include the study of animal behavior including morality, but it is never the source of any morality.  Biologists see male lions or monkeys killing the offspring of captured females as simply one more result of natural selection ("the selfish gene") with no moral judgement whatsoever.  You can take an antibiotic to kill infectious bacteria, but the biologist sees those bacteria as one life form exploiting another as a food source.  Just to teach biology is really a revolutionary (politically incorrect) activity these days, in large part because universities are filled with moralists.  Subjects like behavioral genetics can be politically dangerous.


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