Resistance: It’s time to line up to protect scientists

I’m going to try to get in the habit of giving you actionable, useful, good things to do on Mondays in the coming years. I may fail at this periodically, but I’ll do my best — and if you have recommendations or suggestions, you should definitely hit me up. (Better yet: Support me on Patreon as a commissioning editor!) This week, a cause dear to my heart and I hope to yours as well, and that cause is…science.

The Trump Administration is extremely anti-science. Specifically, a lot of the people in the administration don’t believe that climate change is an actual thing that is happening in the world right now and are happy to share, repeat, and expand upon this view. The widespread belief that climate change isn’t real, and isn’t anthropogenic, is problem enough on its own, but these are people making policy, including at agencies that are responsible for researching, understanding, and, uh, doing something about climate change.

This is like running a hospital and saying that you can heal people with crystals. Like yes, people believe that crystal healing is a real thing and that’s great for them, but science pretty vehemently disagrees. Meanwhile, here you are dominating the neighbourhood healthcare provider, forcing everyone to submit to crystal healing instead of actual evidence-based medicine. That’s not good. And the stakes here are a lot higher than a single patient at our hypothetical hospital. Because the planet is the patient and major federal agencies are the hospital. When people who set and enforce policy don’t believe in reams of scientific evidence, that’s a problem.

The thing is that there are a lot of employees at these agencies who do believe in climate change. Some of them have even done the research that we rely upon to see how the planet is changing in response to human influences. They’ve done amazing work, and the administration has already indicated that it wants to go on a witchhunt to track people down and penalise them for 1) being scientists and 2) doing their jobs. The Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of the Interior, and a whole lot of other agencies are tasked with protecting the environment, among other things, and they’re about to be disempowered.

I am very concerned about many of the scientists working at these agencies, as well as those in other realms of the government, the public sector, and the private. I’m concerned that people may be punished for speaking out, forced to endorse bad policy, or simply muzzled — all things that we know are established problems now. I want to know that researchers who work for the government are able to speak their minds at length and in detail. When I hear policy recommendations, I want to know that they are informed by, you know, science. Not politics. Science must be apolitical.

And I worry that a suppressive atmosphere will crush science in addition to punishing individual scientists, which means that this is a really important time for civilians to stand up for scientists, to make sure the government understands that we value both them and their work. That includes people at government agencies, and universities, and working with private firms, whether for-profit or non-profit. Because the scientific community and its work is important.

That means listening to whistleblowers. When researchers are willing and able to speak out about abuses of power and other problems they encounter on the job, we need to listen. We need to take cues when they tell us how to take action. We need to understand that numerous other abuses are likely going undiscussed because the stakes are too high and those who are affected are too afraid. When we hear about problems at federal agencies we need to push the government to act on them, and to protect the people who unmask them. Maybe that means calling your representative (especially if they set on a committee relevant to the agency or issue at hand). Maybe that means lodging a complaint with the president, even if it feels hollow. Maybe it means asking scientists what they need from us.

It also means interacting with the media. I know that hating the media is very trendy right now, and I have a lot of thoughts about that, but I’m going to set them aside for a moment. It’s often the media that breaks stories about whistleblowers and verifies information so it can be published, making people aware of the fact that there’s a problem. Find media you trust, that behaves ethically and reliably, and use it as a source of information. Demand that media organisations report more, and be more comprehensive, and more accountable, if you think there are problems with their reporting. In particular, support not just science-specific media (hi, Science), but also actual science reporters working for other outlets. Like, I talk about science sometimes, but I am not a science reporter. Science reporters are, specifically, journalists with a scientific background and a depth of training, and they are a rare and very valuable commodity. If your favourite outlet doesn’t have a real science reporter, ask them why not. Demand that they hire one. You can’t find out about developments in the sciences, or suppression of research, without someone to talk to you about it.

It also means sticking around for the long haul. Activism in recent years has acquired a real taste for instantaneous results. That was never a good way to do activism and it’s certainly not now. It may take months, years, or decades for your work to yield change, which means that you have to be willing to stick with it. To keep pushing. To acknowledge the fact that these things are not accomplished overnight. Instead, set a goal to support the sciences every day, even if you don’t get a quick hit of satisfaction every time you do it.

I’m not a fan of trying to label any one thing or issue as ‘the most important’ of the coming years, because a lot of things are important, and some of these assessments are situational. Like to me personally, not dying because I’m trans is pretty important, you know? While to many of my friends, not being forced into institutions through state funding cuts is critical. Others don’t want to be shot by police for being Black in public. We all have needs and they are all important. But climate change is a critical, global, overarching issue that affects not just all of us now, but the rest of the world, and future generations. What happens in the next four years could push the world over the brink of disaster, turning a lot of our discussions into an academic exercise. If the globe is functionally uninhabitable in 200 years, well, that’s going to be a big problem. So let’s make sure that doesn’t happen, okay?

Image: Margerie Glacier, Kimberly Vardeman, Flickr