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The Changing Political Identities of American Science

There is a running joke among historians of science about the signs for this month’s upcoming March for Science in Washington, DC. The scientists’ signs say “Yes to Science!” The historian’s sign says “Yes to Science, but…” The joke is that only a historian would be tone-deaf enough to make a sign trying to convey their nuanced, qualified support for science at a protest march. And yet, as the broader American scientific community grapples with a new and more self-conscious political identity, a real sign trending on social media underscores one of the reasons for science scholars’ ambivalence about the march, the truth behind the joke. On Earth Day, a number of pure science true believers will march on the nation’s political capitol in public protest of the policies of a sitting President’s administration brandishing placards that read: “Science is Not Political!”

My intention here is neither to lampoon nor lambast the March for Science, though it has elements—like this particular sign—both lampoonable and lambastable. Rather, I’d like to reflect on the march as a remarkable moment in the public face of American science. The march’s broad support comes from a range of scientists who are neither primarily the political naïfs of the “Science is Not Political” crowd nor the cynical political operatives that conservative news outlets suggest them to be. The disciplinarily (if not necessarily politically, ethnically, or sexually) diverse array scientists turning out in cities across the nation this weekend instead represent the varied human faces of a profession long troubled by a tradition of hiding its human face. Particularly for the scientists studying topics associated with climatic and environmental change that I have written about in Behind the Curve and Making Climate Change History, it marks a new chapter in a long an awkward dance with political advocacy—the scientists-as-advocate conundrum that has circumscribed scientists’ role in politics for more than half a century.

The basic conundrum is relatively straightforward. On the one hand, western scientific tradition suggests that objective knowledge requires a disinterested investigator, and for centuries scientists have been trained to avoid the biases of personal engagement in the results of their work. To preserve the authority that comes with objectivity, they have tended to guard their social status as politically neutral observers. That is, with a few notable exceptions, the scientific community has shied away from direct political advocacy in the name of science itself. On the other hand, however, especially since the 1950s and 1960s, environmental scientists have found themselves in an increasingly uncomfortable situation as their research gains political relevance. In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, research by biologists like Rachel Carson and Barry Commoner and climate scientists like Roger Revelle and later Stephen Schneider revealed disturbing evidence that modern weapons and technologies could do real environmental and human harm. Because of the complex nature of the problems these scientists studied, however, often only scientists themselves had the knowledge, tools, and skills to understand these pressing environmental problems and present them to the public. As a result, a group of people just about least likely to want to enter the political fray found themselves forced to serve first as interlocutors, and then as political advocates. But how to advocate without compromising the scientists’ dispassionate gaze?

Science advocacy has taken a variety of forms in the post-war period, but the Rachel Carson variety—the direct appeal to the public in a book-length exposé—has until the past thirty years been the exception rather than the rule. The rule was a form of institutionalized advocacy, not for specific public policies like the banning of DDT, but for programs that would advance more and better scientific information in the service of both society and science itself.  Between 1941 and 1970, for example, the American Association for the Advancement of Science reinvented itself as an advocacy organization, not only publishing Science magazine to present scientific research to a broader public audience, but also taking strides to create a more robust interface between scientists and policymakers, and to enhance science education programs in American schools. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a  number of university scientists did stage events to protest weapons research at places like MIT and Stanford, and the AAAS began to take institutional stands on some social issues, including the Vietnam war, chemical weapons restrictions, and the discrimination of sexual minorities, among others, some of which alienated many of the AAAS’s more conservative constituents. For the most part, however, within the AAAS and elsewhere, the answer to the science-as-advocate conundrum has been to advocate for more and better science, which, in capable political hands, would lead to informed public policy.

When scientists did transcend the community-defined boundaries of appropriate advocacy, they were often censured by their peers, their institutions, and the public. Contemporary critics discounted Rachel Carson as a hysterical woman; Barry Commoner as a pinko crackpot; and Paul Ehlich—of Population Bomb fame—as a neo-Malthusian Chicken Little. Climate scientists in particular fought bitter internal battles in the 1970s and 1980s over the appropriate presentation of their research, helping to sow the seeds of polarization that now characterize climate change discourse. In 1983, for example, a skeptical Fred Singer (later a vehement skeptic of climate change) objected vociferously to Carl Sagan’s exposé on the potential climatic effects of a nuclear exchange—“nuclear winter”—in Parade and Foreign Affairs, criticizing both the content and style of Sagan’s argument for arms reduction. Later, when NASA’s James Hansen and Suki Manabe teamed up with Congressman Tim Wirth to tell the world that it was time to “stop waffling” about climate change on the steps of Capitol Hill in 1988, Hansen’s colleagues bristled as much at the scientist’s clearly political public presentation as they did at his statement that his models could detect a change in climate with a high level of certainty. Science, after all, is not supposed to be political.

For Hansen and many scientists-turned-activists who have come after him, the urgency of environmental and climatic change—and the U.S. government’s lackluster response to it—have required that they brave the censure of their peers and push the boundaries of science advocacy. Hansen himself retired from NASA to pursue strategies of political advocacy unavailable to him as a government employee, including public speaking, fundraising, and acts of civil disobedience leading to his arrest on multiple occasions. At the same time, however, that very advocacy has left other scientists—especially early- and mid-career scientists—in an awkward position vis-à-vis institutions and funding agencies that have become increasingly vigilant about possible conflicts of interest stemming from what those agencies perceive as advocacy work. Like it or not, climate change has joined evolution on the front lines of the culture wars, giving the lie to the fiction that “science is not political.” Individual scientists continue to walk the same tightrope of the scientists-as-advocate conundrum that faced their forebears, but an increasingly polarized climate change discourse and a politically divided nation have raised the stakes of the balancing act, making the drop below much bigger.

And this is why the March for Science is such a remarkable moment. On one hand, the basic demands of the march reflect the age-old answer to the scientist/advocate conundrum. Like their AAAS predecessors, march organizers hope to secure a broad commitment to science-based public policy to protect traditional sources of government science funding. But the idiom of public protest in the service of science also adds a new wrinkle to the twenty-first-century science/advocacy problem. A perceived threat to science as an important component of decisionmaking in American politics from an unfriendly Presidential administration—and, for some, an existential threat to American science itself—has prompted scientists to finally behave collectively like the unique political constituency that they are. Like it or not—and a significant number of scientists don’t—staging a public protest on Earth Day, scientists involved in the march are signaling that the rules of science advocacy have changed. Promoting more and better science remains a goal, but in the twenty-first century, so too does marching in the streets to support science-based social and environmental policies fall under the purview of appropriate behavior for serious professional scientists. The white coats have come off, and the human voices of American science have come out to be heard. We’ll see who is listening.

Joshua Howe is Associate Professor of History and Environmental Studies at Reed College in Portland, OR. He is the editor of the newly-released Making Climate Change History: Documents from Global Warming’s Past (April 2017) and author of Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming (2014), both with the University of Washington Press.