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Energized Scientists at AAAS Annual Meeting Aim to Defend Science

Visit the AAAS Force for Science website to follow the latest updates related to AAAS advocacy activities.


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During a AAAS session, John Holdren said that having respect for evidence and the process of science is important for attracting “science and technology experts willing to advise the federal government on key policies.” | Atlantic Photography

BOSTON – The political climate in the United States has placed the legitimacy of science itself under a microscope and surfaced unusual hostility toward the scientific process, say researchers attending the 2017 AAAS Annual Meeting.

But the meeting’s scientific sessions, workshops and networking events find scientists and engineers more energized than disheartened by the political environment. Drawn to the meeting’s focus on science policy, attendees are learning how to bolster the scientific integrity policies of their respective institutions, to clearly outline the real life impacts of their research and to challenge public policy shifts that blunt scientific communication and hamper international talent exchanges.

Mariamar Gutierrez Ramirez, a University of Massachusetts Amherst biologist, said that while some decisions by the new administration “definitely influenced my decision to attend this year’s AAAS meeting as a first-time participant” it was the focus on science policy and advocacy that “was especially attractive to me because these should be — especially now — an essential component of a scientist’s work.”

Like other scientists, Ramirez is concerned about federal funding reductions and other impediments to collaborating with federal agencies. “My deepest concern, however, is the impact on public perception about the validity and importance of science,” she added.

Federal funding of science and technology may fall short of what is needed to keep the U.S. research enterprise competitive, said AAAS CEO Rush Holt, but he also increasingly hears “concerns about what I would call an ongoing trend that goes back many years, even decades, where ideology and ideological assertions have been crowding out evidence in public and private debates and policymaking.”

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Rush Holt said that federal funding of science and technology may fall short of what is needed to keep the U.S. research enterprise competitive. | Atlantic Photography

“It’s reaching a place where people are truly troubled about what this means for the practice of science and the ability of science to bring its benefits to the population at large,” he added during a breakfast press briefing on 16 February.

“I’ve never seen the scientific community so concerned about making sure that the process of science works, and it’s not a self-serving concern,” agreed AAAS President Barbara Schaal at the press briefing. “It’s a concern for the benefits that science has, and will, provide to nations.”

In an effort to assist the scientific and engineering community digest developments since Election Day, AAAS has made information available about its actions in response to administration policy shifts that impact scientific integrity and tracked Cabinet nominations as well as other relevant policy issues at www.ForceForScience.org.

In a AAAS session on 17 February, John Holdren, the assistant to the president for science and technology in the Obama administration, said universities, science organizations and advocacy groups must strategically harness the energy and motivations of their members, to be more effective “than simply pouncing on each day’s indignities with every weapon at our disposal.”

“We as a community need to think carefully about how to focus and utilize our activities to try to ensure a continuation of the momentum and the integrity of science in this new era,” Holdren said.

During a meeting that draws more than 10,000 participants from nearly 60 countries, concerns about the state of science are understandably diverse.

The research community remains worried about President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration and visas – notwithstanding a judicial hold. Research scientists question whether the order will reduce international collaborations and remain troubled by confusion surrounding communications restrictions placed on employees of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture, two agencies that have played vital roles in the collection of scientific data on climate change. The limits have kept scientists from discussing their work in public channels.

Many scientists are speaking out against Cabinet nominees who have expressed skepticism about well-established scientific facts in areas including global climate change and the efficacy of vaccinations. They have voiced concern that government agencies will be left without crucial scientific guidance if positions that require such knowledge, such as the White House science adviser, are not filled by qualified individuals.

“When officials use a phrase like ‘alternative facts’ without embarrassment, you know there’s a problem,” said Holt, referring to a term coined by presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway. Such statements only deepen concern that there is weakening support for the need to base public policy on scientific facts, he added.

Holdren is similarly worried that “we could be in for a major shift in the culture around science and technology and evidence in government.” Without a respect for evidence and the process of science, he suggested, it will be difficult to attract science and technology experts willing to advise the federal government on key policies.

Robert Hickey, a professor of geography at Central Washington University, and a 10-year AAAS member, considers “alternative facts” as nothing more than an “utter disregard for facts.” The statement has prompted Hickey to plan to participate in an upcoming March with Science rally that will be held in Seattle in conjunction with the national March for Science in Washington, D.C. on 22 April.

Scientists have been divided on whether a science march will be useful to their cause, with some leaders, including Holdren, still undecided about whether the April event will strengthen science’s cause.

In response to questions from reporters at the 16 February press briefing, Holt said AAAS is not organizing the event but will work with its members and affiliate societies “to make the [Washington, D.C.] march a success.”

Other scientists are seeking individual ways to protect science’s reputation and future.

For instance, Alex Turo, an Ohio State University graduate student who studies plant-microbe interactions with an eye toward improving crops like tomatoes, said he decided to do something constructive that drew upon his own work.

Turo joined his local Sierra Club chapter out of a belief that “effective conservation is local.” He fields science questions posed by chapter members and, in March, is planning to deliver a talk on plant science that will lay out facts about genetically modified crops, among other topics.

While Turo has found a way to speak out, Gretchen Goldman of the Union of Concerned Scientists has concerns about the “chilling effect” that the current political environment may have on government scientists. Even without an official communications ban in place, she said, “federal scientists now are sort of getting the signal that their communications are being scrutinized and that there might be tighter control on the kind of scientific information that leaves the agency.”

Goldman said that scientific integrity policies established in 24 federal agencies during the George W. Bush administration will be helpful in navigating the next four years, and the Union of Concerned Scientists has also built a secure website for federal scientists to report scientific integrity abuses. “We’re in a very different place than we used to be... having a workforce in place that understands their rights when it comes to their ability to conduct science and to communicate that science,” said Goldman.

Several attendees said they are attending the AAAS meeting specifically to find out how to get involved in science policy — some for the first time.

Wynter Duncanson, a bioengineering and materials science visiting professor at Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, came to Boston eager to participate in the meeting’s multifaceted events, even though some of her colleagues had warned that anti-science sentiments in Washington might make this an inauspicious time to pursue an interest in science policy.

Duncanson has worked extensively in Kazakhstan and Brazil, deliberately choosing international research as a way “to increase science access to people who don’t have access and to increase the number of women and minorities in science around the world,” she said. “I do that by being a presence in these other countries, but I feel like I need to do more.”

[Associated Image: Atlantic Photography]

Author

Becky Ham