Before 2016, many scientists didn’t feel comfortable using their positions and platforms to speak up as advocates in arenas outside the research enterprise. Institutions and individuals were unlikely to take a stand on societal issues such as immigration, gun violence, voting rights, or racial justice, out of concern that their objectivity would be called into question. When scientists did speak up, they often paid a steep price for doing so, such as being overlooked for promotions or tenure.
However, under the Trump administration, the broader scientific community began to recognize that although science is not partisan, it is political. Decisions about what is studied, and what work is celebrated and recognized, are ultimately political decisions. When we recognize that science is political, we can call out when it’s being misused as a partisan football. We can identify where racism, sexism, and other systems of oppression manifest in the learning and practicing of science, and we can address the harm those systemic maladies cause. We can also recognize the full humanity of scientists, who are also parents, constituents, mentors, communicators, and advocates.
Scientists coalesced quickly after President Trump was elected, forming organizations such as 500 Women Scientists. At the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), our Science Network membership swelled to more than 23,000 members in 2017, a 36 percent increase over the previous year. Some attendees of the 2017 AAAS Annual Meeting staged an impromptu rally to call attention to the importance of science-based decision making. And around the world that year, in more than 600 cities, scientists and science supporters marched for science. For 88 percent of marchers, it was their first time attending a science-related demonstration.
As attacks on science by the administration mounted, researchers embraced their new role as advocates. They alerted their elected officials to the consequences of such attacks, spoke up about how immigration bans and restrictions negatively affected the research enterprise, and warned the public about the dangerous outcomes of censoring scientists. When the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) disbanded its panel for informing decisions on particulate pollution, experts organized their own. Physicians and public health experts pushed back against the National Rifle Association’s call for them to “stay in their lane” on gun violence as a public health crisis. Individuals and organizations raised their voices to call for scientists to join them in embracing advocacy.
As the Trump presidency wore on, the science advocacy movement established roots. Organizations new (such as the National Science Policy Network) and old (such as AAAS, COMPASS, and Science for the People) developed infrastructure to support the growing need to train and equip researchers to engage in advocacy and crafting policy. At UCS, our members asked us for more meaningful opportunities to address issues important to them, so we developed new programs focused on building their leadership capacities. One example is our Science for Public Good Fund, which offers small grants for science advocacy activities and projects focused on the community-level impacts of science-related policies. Through this fund, UCS has distributed $39,000 to 41 individuals and groups around the country. We also created the Team-Based Organizing Initiative, which trains scientists to organize others in their communities to fight for equitable, science-based solutions.
This emergent movement has not always hit the right notes or been mobilized to the fullest extent of its power. Successful movements are diverse and inclusive—something that STEM fields continue to struggle with. Last summer, in response to the horrific death of George Floyd while in police custody, the burden of mobilizing the scientific community often fell to Black scientists and other scientists of color. Even when scientific associations released statements about the civil unrest, they were often inadequate. The American Chemical Society’s original statement, for example, left out the terms “Black,” “police brutality,” and “racism.”
The scientific community has also not found an effective way to fight back against one of the lingering legacies of the Trump administration—the proliferation of disinformation. In 2020, disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic as well as the 2020 election ran rampant on social media. There have been many scientists, doctors, and public health specialists who have stepped up as excellent communicators about the pandemic and the COVID-19 vaccines that are now available. But under the Trump administration, scientists were not able to influence the federal government in a meaningful way to get it to take steps such as enforcing mask mandates or requiring states to provide vaccination demographic data, leading to potential further inequities in terms of who is receiving vaccines. Pushing back against disinformation, around vaccines or other topics, will continue to be one of the biggest challenges for the science advocacy movement.
Although the groundswell of interest in 2017 was largely in reaction to the Trump administration, the momentum of politically engaged scientists and the galvanizing impacts of the pandemic and George Floyd’s killing have carried us into what could be a new era for activism in science. By equipping scientist-advocates with the tools they need to identify and respond to policy opportunities in their communities, the movement is building resilience against attacks on science around the country, and can more nimbly mobilize and respond in these often-unpredictable times, regardless of the direction of political winds. For example, scientists have met with their legislators to get them to cosponsor important climate legislation, testified against expanding fossil fuel infrastructure, called for greater scientific integrity in government decision making, and brought together key stakeholders to address health inequities in their cities.
Attacks on science will continue, from the current and future administrations, regardless of political party. What is critical now is that the scientific community sustains its activist calling. We can direct our energy toward holding the new Congress and administration accountable for their promises to listen to scientists and to work for equitable outcomes for all. More than 100 years ago, American abolitionist Frederick Douglass said that power concedes nothing without a demand. We do not have the luxury of silencing our demands now, not when there is so much at stake. The world needs scientists to continue to embrace roles as advocates and active constituents.
Melissa Varga is Science Network community and partnerships manager with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Shreya Durvasula is Science Network manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists. Reach out to them on Twitter @SciNetUCS and @SDurv87, respectively.