Should Scientists Engage In Activism?

When scientists stand up, do they lose standing? Liz Lemon

Danielle Andrew 09 Mar 2017, 20:09

Have 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. The Conversation

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.

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 has acknowledged that it waited too long to sound the alarm.

Marc Edwards testifying before Congress about the situation in Flint. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

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. 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.

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