Science Belongs to No Party

This blog is about science. This blog is not about politics. Science is not about politics.

At least it’s not supposed to be.

If you’ve ever received modern medical care, like taking antibiotics or having surgery or getting an x-ray or MRI or blood test, you’ve benefited from science.

If you’ve ever talked on a phone or used a computer or flown on an airplane, you’ve benefited from science.

If you’ve ever learned anything from this blog, or any other science website or magazine or TV program, or ever heard an interesting scientific fact that you were eager to tell someone else about, you’ve benefited from science.

Science is one of the primary drivers of societal progress. When science is threatened, society is threatened.

You may have guessed that I’m writing this post now because, come January, certain people are going to be in power who seem likely to threaten scientific progress.

This is not a political post

I’m not asking you to support or disavow any particular political party or politician. Both champions and detractors of science can be found in every party, though it’s hard to deny that things seem a bit skewed at the moment.

Support whichever party or politicians you want. I’m just asking you to be vigilant in recognizing when powerful people make blatantly anti-science claims or policies. For example, our president-elect has repeatedly called global warming a hoax.

Global warming is not a hoax. There are decades of of scientific studies to back it up and there is broad scientific consensus that it is real. The Pentagon itself has called global warming an “urgent and growing threat”. Global warming may be the most important science-related issue of our time since ignoring it will have dire consequences for our health, cities, and the environment. Yet ignoring it is exactly what our new president seems poised to do.

Science costs money (but really not that much)

Beyond any single issue, many scientists fear that the next administration may cut funding for scientific research. The majority of basic research in the U.S. is funded by the government, through agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

These agencies are the life-blood that sustains the research driving scientific progress in this country, research that advances the frontier of knowledge and makes invaluable contributions to improving our health and quality of life.

And guess how much it costs you. Government spending on science represents about 1% of the federal budget. Literally 1 cent on the dollar in exchange for constantly improving medical treatment, technology, and insight into the nature of our existence? You’ve gotta admit, that’s an amazing frickin deal for us taxpayers!

And yet many politicians still want to slash government spending on research. Our president-elect has called the NIH “terrible”, though he offered no further explanation. What that means for research funding, we’ll have to find out.

total_spending_pie__2015_enacted

See that tiny light blue sliver at the top? That’s the fraction of government spending on science (from nationalpriorities.org). This percentage varies depending on what exactly you count as “science” and I’ve seen differing numbers (e.g. here and here), but nothing higher than 2%.

 

Don’t make science political

Again, this is not a political post. There are plenty of issues we Americans disagree on, from taxes to foreign policy to immigration, and we can and should have vigorous debates on these topics.

But science should not be one of them.

Science belongs to no party, and science benefits us all. Don’t let it become yet another thing that divides us.

 

What can you do?

You can support science in your everyday life, no matter your political leanings.

If you see someone sharing something on facebook or twitter or via email that seems scientifically questionable (e.g. “global warming is a hoax”), do a bit of google searching to determine whether it’s true. Politifact and Snopes are often good sources for supporting or debunking widely shared claims. When someone shares false information, call them out and correct them (respectfully). Call out your friends or family when they repeat these kinds of claims in person (again, politely).

Keep an open mind yourself. Science is not about belief, it’s about weighing the facts. If you thought something seemed like a good policy but you hear facts or studies that question that view, be willing to reconsider it. There are many times I’ve changed my opinion about something after hearing new facts. (For example, at least half the proposals discussed in this episode of Planet Money.)

Strive to learn more about science. Spend a few more minutes skimming the science section of the newspaper, click on science-related links that seem interesting, visit the science museum. (Reading this blog is a good start!) Tell your friends about cool science stuff that you’ve learned. Most importantly, if you have kids or grandkids or nephews or nieces, teach them as much as you can about science and take them to the science museum with you! The more scientifically literate our society becomes, the more this will be reflected in our politicians and their policies.

Call out your political representatives when they endorse anti-science policies, make claims that aren’t supported by the facts, or threaten to cut scientific funding. Call them or write to them and make sure your voice is heard.

If you can, donate to organizations that support scientific progress and our environment. Some good ones I’ve heard of are the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Resources Defense Council, and the Union of Concerned Scientists. Research any potential charity beforehand to ensure your donation will be well-spent.

To my fellow scientists: It’s our responsibility to engage with the public to emphasize the importance of our collective work. If you’ve never participated in public outreach before, now is the time to start. Volunteer at science fairs, visit school classrooms, give a public lecture, write or talk about your work to friends, family, and strangers. Don’t tell me you don’t have time – your livelihood may be at stake. Plus, I can guarantee it’s a lot of fun.

 

For further reading on the possible implications of the election results on science, I recommend the embedded links above as well as these:

“The ultimate experiment: How Trump will handle science” (Nature)

“What Trump can – and can’t – do all by himself on climate” (Science)

“Science and technology under a Trump presidency” (PBS)


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