Standing Up for Science

By David Velinsky and Roland Wall

On April 22 in cities around the nation, scientists and their supporters will be rallying and marching to celebrate science and to highlight its critical role in society. The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University has joined with other scientific organizations to voice our support of the principles of the March for Science in Philadelphia.

Some scientists are taking public stances, like joining the march, because of a growing concern that science is being ignored, discredited, eliminated, and politicized.

Most people are unaware of how much they depend on science or where it comes from. Drink a glass of water, swallow an aspirin, follow a flood warning, fly in a plane, eat a snack from the corner grocery store, check the weather report, visit a doctor, or turn on a light.

All of these mundane actions—and countless other pieces of our lives—depend on a science infrastructure, not just for discovery and invention, but for making the system operate.

Academy scientists with the Delaware River Watershed Initiative, which aims to protect and restore water quality. Some 15 million people in four states rely on the Delaware for their drinking water.

A large proportion of scientific research and its useful application are the result of government investment and management. An alphabet soup of federal agencies—from NOAA and USGS, to NIH and even the much maligned EPA—all are part of the reason we seldom worry about things like waterborne illness, surprise weather disasters, or aircraft falling from the sky.

Federally-funded research drives our cutting-edge science. Government agencies are key to how the research is used, and scientific communication is the nervous system that keeps it all working together. Now these operations are being threatened by policy directions in Washington.

It is important to understand this is not simply about funding priorities. Science is a process for knowing and learning, a systematic way of reducing uncertainty in how the world works. To be successful, it has to adhere to a broader set of values. One of the most important of these values is the use of evidence as the basis for understanding and for reaching conclusions.

Unfortunately, in recent months we have seen a public dialogue that increasingly holds evidence-based thinking in contempt. Some national leaders are making statements about climate change that defy mainstream science and would not withstand scientific scrutiny.

Evidence-based thinking, along with other scientific values such as abstract reasoning, collaboration and consensus, also are central to the democratic process. It is no coincidence that many of our nation’s founders were fascinated with science, nor that our constitutional system grew out of the same Enlightenment that gave us modern science.

And while it is possible to have science (of a sort) without democracy, there are no democratic systems that do not also support the spirit of inquiry, reason and understanding that is central to science.

Academy scientists collect and survey along the water’s edge in a busy channel.

Faced with these challenges not only to the operation of science but to its very foundation, normally apolitical scientists are becoming more vocal. Beyond individual actions like marching and speaking out, scientific institutions also are now taking stands on public issues, actively entering the expanding public dialogue building on science and policy.

At the Academy of Natural Sciences, the study and communication of environmental and biodiversity sciences is central to our mission. We have a deep and abiding concern that these critical issues are being and will be misrepresented and mishandled.

To address this, for the first time in our 205-year history, the Academy has taken public positions on four crucial topics. Earlier this month we posted our position statements on climate change, evolution, water, and biodiversity and extinction to our website, ansp.org. These issues often have been at the center of broader debates.

Now we believe it is more important than ever to articulate and champion the established scientific consensus on these issues and to support policies that are driven by that proven and credible scientific consensus.

Some of our colleagues have expressed concern that this level of public involvement might hurt scientists’ credibility. We respect those concerns and understand the need for caution. However, we believe that we can no longer expect the traditional practices of research and scientific publication to suffice in communicating the importance of science to everyone’s daily life.

Now is the time for us to speak out about the positive benefits of science to ensure that science has a voice.

 

David Velinsky is the Academy’s Vice President for Academy Science and Department Head, Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science, Drexel University

Roland Wall is the Academy’s Senior Director, Environmental Initiatives