AAAS CEO Rush Holt: Scientists Must Take a Stand

Researchers concerned about the state of science policy, such as these 2013 AAAS S&T Policy Fellows, must lose their hesitancy about stepping into the political sphere, writes AAAS CEO Rush Holt. | AAAS

The AAAS Annual Meeting brings together more than 10,000 of the world's most talented and diverse scientists — yet this year select international participants who have made valuable contributions to the scientific community may not attend, due to ongoing uncertainty about the recent immigration and visa order implemented in the United States.

AAAS CEO Rush Holt highlights the need for science to remain open and collaborative, despite borders and politics, in a 10 February Science editorial that addresses recent developments.

"For science to be effective and provide its benefits to people, some fundamental principles must be observed and defended — among them, the freedoms of open communication, collaboration and diversity of perspectives, all of which are disrespected by such travel restrictions," Holt writes.

The AAAS meeting , which will be held 16-20 February in Boston, is an opportunity for scientists to present their latest scientific findings, network, learn from each other and be recognized for their outstanding work. Due to the recent immigration order, several prominent scientists, including a Sudanese scientist who is to be recognized for her excellent work in developing countries, may not be present for her award. In addition, Mohamed H.A. Hassan, the interim executive director of the World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), also from Sudan, has cancelled his trip to Boston.

AAAS and 170 other scientific organizations have urged President Donald Trump to rescind his 27 January executive order on immigration, calling it damaging to scientific innovation and U.S. science and engineering capacity. A panel of judges from the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to rule this week on whether a temporary halt placed on the order by a federal district judge should be kept in place.

Holt notes that many scientists are hesitant to step into political territory. Reasons can vary, but may include their concerns about losing research funding, or moving beyond the comfort zone of the technical world they know.

Holt, who has experience in both the scientific and political realm as a Ph.D. physicist and former House member who represented New Jersey's 12th Congressional District for 16 years, advises scientists to take a stand. Simply letting the facts speak for themselves is not sufficient, he writes. "Taking action is the best course when science is threatened or when science can illuminate public issues."

He notes a distinct difference between politics and science, where researchers must take "great pains to prevent ideology, bias, or wishful thinking from contaminating the collecting or analyzing of evidence — that is, one must avoid politicizing the science." Applying relevant science to political or societal situations, however, can help address problems, he emphasizes.