Can Science Survive In A More Politicized Age?

46:45 minutes

This Saturday thousands will join the March for Science in Washington, D.C. in the name of evidence-based decision-making in all levels of government. The planned demonstration, which falls on Earth Day, was inspired by the successful Women’s March that took place this past January, which drew hundreds of thousands to the National Mall and cities across the globe.

This weekend’s protest aims to be equally massive. More than 500 satellite marches have been planned for all over the world, including in all 50 U.S. states. The march’s mission as stated on its website reads:

“Science should neither serve special interests nor be rejected based on personal convictions. At its core, science is a tool for seeking answers. It can and should influence policy and guide our long-term decision-making.”

[What is the March for Science?

The idea that support for science is a bipartisan issue and not a rallying point for the Democratic Party has been a tricky needle to thread, given the current administration’s anti-science policies. In the three months that President Trump has been in office, he has called for a dramatic reduction in federal funding of scientific research and hampered the efforts at various government agencies to combat climate change. At the same time Congress has rolled back important environmental regulations enacted under the Obama administration. These actions have emboldened some members of the scientific community to participate in this Saturday’s public stand in support for science, while others worry that political activism could harm the credibility of scientists.

It’s clear which side Congressman Bill Foster (D-IL) lands on this issue. As a former physicist, he’s the only congressman in the House of Representatives with a Ph.D. in the natural sciences, and he openly encourages other scientists who are considering running for public office. Foster is joined by Lydia Villa-Komaroff, a biologist and co-chair of the March for Science, and Meg Urry, a professor of physics and astronomy at Yale University, for a discussion about the core issues underpinning this Saturday’s march.

[How will scientific research fare under President Donald Trump?]

Plus, biologist and Californian Michael Eisen talks about his bid for the U.S. Senate. And David Evans, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, describes the role that teachers can play in a world where science is increasingly politicized.

Segment Guests

Meg Urry

C. Meg Urry is a professor of astronomy and physics at Yale University, and the past president of the American Astronomical Society. She’s based in New Haven, Connecticut.

Bill Foster

Congressman Bill Foster represents Illinois’ 11th District in the US House of Representatives in Washington, D.C..

Lydia Villa-Komaroff

Lydia Villa-Komaroff is co-chair of the March for Science. She’s Co-founder of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), and is based in Boston, Massachusetts.

Michael Eisen

Michael Eisen is an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He’s a professor of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley in Berkeley, California.

David Evans

David Evans is the Executive Director of the National Science Teachers Association in Washington, D.C..

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. If you’re a fan of this show, you probably know that something big is happening this weekend. Tomorrow, if you look out your window or head downtown, you could run into a scientist, or two, or thousands, and many others, who will be participating in the first ever March for Science. The main event takes place here in Washington, DC, where I am this weekend.

But there’s going to be over 500 satellite marches in cities all over the world, where people will gather to spread the message that science matters. Science and politics have a long and sometimes stressful history together. We can look as far back as Galileo, or as close as Albert Einstein, Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich, Barry Commoner, and Carl Sagan– all scientists who never left their roles as scientists, but felt that the health and security of this nation dependent on them speaking up and out to the public.

More recently, Sylvia Earle, Jane Lubchenco, Michael Mann have heard that call. And the list could go on. As you know, some scientists are hesitant to speak out for fear that it will muddy the empirical waters. But to my way of thinking, if science has become politicized, it’s because politicians have made it so.

Science at its core doesn’t seek any political point of view. It goes to where the evidence leads it. Many people, including scientists, are marching this week. Because the current political climate requires some form of visible public support, they believe, especially at a time when, not only the White House, but members of congress who fund basic research question the validity of the scientific method itself.

So this hour, we’re going to talk about tomorrow’s science march and what happens the day after, or the week after, or the month, the year after. And if you’d like to join the discussion about science and advocacy in government, and tell us what the March for Science means to you, give us a call. Our number, 844-724-8255, 844-SCITALK, or you can tweet us @SciFri.

Let me introduce my guests. Meg Urry is professor of physics and astronomy at Yale University, and past president of the American Astronomical Society. Welcome to Science Friday.

MEG URRY: Thanks.

IRA FLATOW: Congressman Bill Foster, a physicist and the US Congressman from Illinois’ 11th District. Welcome to Science Friday.

BILL FOSTER: Happy to be back.

IRA FLATOW: And Lydia Villa-Komaroff is co-chair of the March for Science, co-founder of the Society for the Advancement of Chicano Hispanics and Native Americans in Science. Welcome to Science Friday.

LYDIA VILLA-KOMAROFF: Glad to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s begin with you, Lydia. You’re one of the co-chairs of this march. How did it get started? What’s it all about in your mind?

LYDIA VILLA-KOMAROFF: Well, would first say that I’m an honorary co-chair. And how this happened was that the organizers asked all of the societies that were participating to suggest speakers for the march in Washington. And I was one of those folks suggested by SACNAS, as we call it.

A few weeks later, I got a call from Caroline Weinberg, who is the person who’s tweeted this and started the whole business on Reddit. And she asked me to be an honorary co-chair along with two others. And so I became involved then. I was on the road on a lecture tour at the time. And so my involvement was fairly minor until two weeks ago when I started talking to people extensively.

IRA FLATOW: And what did you find out? What cemented that idea for you? What is the march about in your mind?

LYDIA VILLA-KOMAROFF: For me, the march is exactly as you said. It’s to defend science. There seems to be an increasing disregard for the importance of science in everyday life. I think that we, as a public, have forgotten that there is essentially nothing that we do or use that isn’t dependent upon the support of basic science sometimes in the past. And so the other thing is, if we decide to make decisions about how we do policy without facts as part of the discussion, we’re going to make very bad decisions.

IRA FLATOW: Congressman, what do you think?

BILL FOSTER: Well, I’m going to be attending the science march in Washington, but not as a Democratic member of congress, but as a scientist. When this got announced, my inbox started overflowing with all my old friends from science, saying, hey, Bill, are you going to be there? What should I do? Should I attend the local science march in Illinois and wherever?

And so I think it’s important when you have such a visible disrespect for the scientific method, as well as just fundamental facts and evidence, there’s a real difference. If you’re in science, and you stand up, and you say something that you know is not true, it is a career-ending thing. And it used to be that way in politics.

I remember back– I think it was 1988– when Joe Biden lost his first campaign for presidency, not because he lied, but simply because he quoted without attribution a few applause lines from a British politician. And that shows you how far down we have fallen in our respect for truth.

IRA FLATOW: Professor Urry, give us your thoughts.

MEG URRY: Well, I have to admit that, initially, I was a little hesitant to get involved in the march. Because I do think it’s bad if this looks like a political statement. I mean, there’s a long history of bipartisan support in congress for science.

Science funding is robustly supported on both sides of the House, and on the Senate in both parties. But what’s really good about the march, I think, is that it’s an opportunity, it’s a moment when scientists can say, hey, look at what we do for the nation and for the world. This is a really important thing. We need to train young scientists. We need to do research. And here’s why. So that’s what I hope comes across tomorrow.

IRA FLATOW: And what concerns most of you? Now let me ask this to all of you. What most concerns you about the political support for science in Washington now? Is it because people are saying things that they know are not true, or just don’t know enough? Congressman.

MEG URRY: Well, if I could just jump in just with an example. I think it’s fair to say that climate change and sort of earth science has become a political issue. And you can look at the NASA budget. And what happens when Republicans come in is that earth science goes, down and planetary exploration goes up. And when Democrats come in, the reverse happens, planetary goes down, and earth science goes up by fairly large amounts.

And what this does is it introduces sort of a shock wave to the funding train. And discoveries are very long-term things. And even the training of a student can take 10 or 15 years, if you go from undergraduate, to graduate school, to a postdoc.

So the enterprise is trying to run on a fairly long-time scale. And if you have abrupt changes of direction every time there’s a new political party, that would be very bad for science. And so if other parts of science become as politicized, I think it will be very, very unhealthy.

IRA FLATOW: Congressman?

BILL FOSTER: Yeah, I find you have to sort of take it issue by issue, and individually with my colleagues across the aisle. For example, in climate change is probably the most politically polarized issue. If you Google my name along with Greenland– you Google, Bill Foster Greenland– you’re led to a story and a video of a Republican at our hearing trying to convince everyone that it was a matter of scientific debate whether or not it was a good thing if the Greenland ice sheet melted. And that’s what we have to face on the Science Committee regularly.

On the other hand, there are times when scientific issues are naturally bipartisan. An example of that was the breakthroughs on human genetic engineering. Several years ago, there was this breakthrough. It goes by the name of CRISPR-Cas9. And really, as a result of that, brave new world and human genetic engineering is not a century away. And it’s probably not even a decade away.

And because of the importance of this, I was able to convince the Republican Chair of the Science Committee to hold a hearing on this. I was told it was one of the best ever attended hearings of the Science Committee. And everyone behaved themselves very nicely in the thing, and asked thoughtful questions, because of the importance of this.

IRA FLATOW: Lydia, when did science become a matter of politics– or at least it’s global warming or climate change. I mean, isn’t science science?

LYDIA VILLA-KOMAROFF: I think probably science became a political issue when the discussion was, should we carry fire with us or not when we travel? I think that any time you have a group of people who are making decisions about how we use nature, that’s a political decision. It’s a human activity, politics, as is science.

And so, as we have gotten more complex, of course, the arguments get more complex. So I think it’s sort of fallacious to say that science is not or should not be political. I think, in my mind, what is correct to say is that science works very hard to provide as much evidence that can be checked, and tested, and verified, and present that to policymakers to be an important part of the discussion of how we use those facts to move forward.

So if we spend time arguing about opinions, or beliefs, or things that can’t be verified, it takes away from reasonable discussion about what we really need to do to solve problems. And my worries are not so much with the House and Senate. Because the past has shown us that things do go back and forth. But people do talk about them. And it is a issue-by-issue basis.

What worries me is times when someone who doesn’t understand the science of the agency that they’re in charge of, or when decisions are made that have consequences that were unanticipated– like the travel ban, for example. What the travel ban has done to hospitals is mean that there are small hospitals in the middle of the country who did not match with foreign applicants, because they were worried that those folks might not come. Universities have lost students, because the students don’t want to come.

This harms the enterprise. We do need to use our native talent here. But science is a global enterprise. And all of us need to work at it together.

IRA FLATOW: The law of unintended consequences.

BILL FOSTER: Yeah, I think there’s another flash point for scientists when they see politicians deliberately misrepresenting scientific facts. One example of that comes to mind is there was a Republican select committee basically to provide the rationale to de-fund Planned Parenthood. And so they issued a report solely supported by the Republican members, where they made the statement that in 100 years of research fetal tissue has not yielded any treatments, which is going to be news to everyone who’s suffered from cystic fibrosis, or rheumatoid arthritis, or hemophilia that is benefiting today from treatments coming from that. And that is a flash point when scientific facts are basically misrepresented.

IRA FLATOW: OK, we’re going to come back, and talk lots more, and take a lot of phone calls, which are coming in with Meg Urry, and Congressman Bill Foster, and Leah Villa-Komaroff, and your calls. We’re very happy to have them. So stay with us. We’ll be right back after this break talking about the March on Science. Call us. And tell us if you’re going, and what’s happening in your city. We’ll be right back after this short break.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking about the March for Science ahead of this weekend, starting tomorrow, 500 cities around the world with Lydia Villa-Komaroff, Meg Urry, Congressman Bill Foster, and your phone calls. Meg, let me ask you. You said that you originally were opposed to the idea of the science march. What were your concerns then? And tell me more about what changed your mind.

MEG URRY: Well, it’s this issue of politicizing science. I think if our political representatives see somehow that we are coming down on one side or another– it’s hard to describe. But it just seems to me like it’s a mistake to– science is good for everybody independent of your political party. It is helping every single citizen in the United States.

And to create more political awareness about how important science is a good thing. But to label it– there are certainly going to be people in the march who have an agenda which is political. And that may warp the perception of what it is that scientists are trying to do. So I really hope that we can all keep the message on what science is doing for everybody.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let’s move forward. Because we have a lot of stuff to cover. Members in congress Came from all different working backgrounds. But Bill, lawyers seemed to dominate in congress. 218 members are lawyers. Just three have backgrounds in hard sciences. And you’re the only one with a PhD in science.

But there seemed to be more scientists showing interest in moving into political life. And my next guest is one of those scientists. Michael Eisen is a professor of molecular and cell biology at University of California Berkeley. He’s co-founder of the Journal of Public library of Science, PLOS, as we call in. And he hopes to add US Senator for California to that list. Welcome to Science Friday.

MICHAEL EISEN: Thanks a lot. Nice to have you.

IRA FLATOW: Well, who’s seat are you running for out there?

MICHAEL EISEN: Well, it’s the seat currently occupied by Dianne Feinstein. We don’t know yet whether she’s running for reelection.

IRA FLATOW: And why do you want to run? And why now?

MICHAEL EISEN: Well, I think that we, as scientists, have relied for a very long time on proxies to defend science, and to try to explain science, and to make wise policy decisions based on science. And we have a few people in Congress, like Dr. Foster, who come from scientific backgrounds. But given the centrality of science and technology in our lives, and in the important challenges that the country face, it’s really rather astonishing that there are so few people who come from scientific backgrounds who have been really even willing to step forward and run for office.

And I think that one of the things that is happening now– it certainly was true for me. And I think it’s represented in the March for Science– is I think the scientific community is beginning to realize that we have to take a much more active role in trying to both explain science, to defend science in the political sphere, and to try to make sure that the decisions we make as a country are based on the kind of scientific principles, and our latest understanding of the complex issues that scientists grapple with everyday.

IRA FLATOW: Now what’s interesting– I was looking at some surveys today. And it showed that scientists are among the most respected professions around. Politicians, broadcasters, we’re in single digits sometimes. But scientists, generally in the public, are over 40%. Do you think that’s going to help you?

MICHAEL EISEN: Absolutely. I think there’s a little bit of too much hand-wringing in the scientific community. I think people have created this narrative that we’re under attack, and that somehow the public doesn’t appreciate us. But I’ve been a scientist for something like 30 years. And I’ve told lots of people who ask me on a plane, or on a bus, or when I’m in a store, ask me what I do. And I say I’m a scientist.

Not once has anybody ever said, ew, keep away from my children. They’re interested in what we do. They think that we contribute positively to society. And yes, I think science is under attack. But it’s under attack in politics, and not really from the public.

And I think that the public wants our government to ground itself much more in reality. It wants people who have common sense approaches to solving problems. And so I’m very optimistic that, as more scientists step forward, and sort of recognize that it’s important that we actually play an active role in our political sphere, that the public is going to be very strongly behind us.

IRA FLATOW: Congressman, do you have any advice for would-be scientists running for Congress?

BILL FOSTER: Oh, yeah. Contact me. And I’m happy to encourage you. I spent a certain amount of my life sometimes traveling around. And I have a set of PowerPoints on what life is like as a scientist in Congress, where I enumerate the long list of neurons that you have to deaden to turn a scientist’s brain into a politician’s.


MICHAEL EISEN: I look forward to the conversation.

BILL FOSTER: And also the rewards. No, seriously, I view it as part of my duty to try to recruit more people to get into this. Because almost every issue we face has a technological edge to it, as well as a non-technological edge. And as long as we respect the difference, and respect people’s differing opinions on the part of a decision that doesn’t have to do with science, I think it’s a tremendously valuable contribution we’re making.

IRA FLATOW: All right, I’m going to go to the phones. Because phone lines are jammed here. I’m going to go to Joanna, who is on the New Jersey Turnpike at the moment.


IRA FLATOW: Where are you headed to, Joanna?

AUDIENCE: Yeah. I’m headed to DC to march with my former sister-in-law and her husband. She used to work for NASA. I’m a pastor. And I believe that we, in the faith community, to be supportive and show that science and faith are not enemies. They cover two different arenas.

And my dad was a science teacher. And my mom was a math teacher. And I just find it appalling that there’s de-funding of NIH and EPA. And it’s insane to me. This is the year 2017.

IRA FLATOW: Well, stay safe on the Jersey Turnpike. And good luck. And safe travels to you. Thanks for calling. People are on the move. Wow. Michael, so where do you go from here? Tell us your next steps in running.

MICHAEL EISEN: Well, I’m not a politician. I’ve never played one on TV. I have to figure out how to run for office, and what that means. So it’s a completely different universe than being a scientist with its own idiosyncrasies. And so I’m talking to as many people as I can who’ve run for political office, trying not to get too discouraged by the many pitfalls that they raise.

And I’m setting out to explain to the people of California what I think I, as a scientist, and I, given my specific background, bring to the table. And you mentioned PLOS and the role I’ve played in trying to open up the scientific literature to the public. And I find that the fact that I’ve sort of been fighting for the public in my scientific career for a long time has helped a lot in connecting with people who like science but sort of have their qualms about institutions of science that aren’t really open and sharing with the public.

So so far, it’s been very interesting. Very enthusiastic response, not just within the scientific community, but from lots of other people in California, in the tech community, and agriculture community, and other places. So I’m really looking forward to it.

IRA FLATOW: All right, thank you for taking time to be with us. And good luck to you.

MICHAEL EISEN: My pleasure. Thanks a lot.

IRA FLATOW: Check in. Let’s see how you’re doing.

MICHAEL EISEN: I certainly will.

IRA FLATOW: That was Michael Eisen, who is a professor of molecular and cell biology at UC Berkeley, and co-founder of the journal PLOS. And he hopes to add US Senator to that list. We’ll see how well he’s going to do that.

We also have lots more calls. I want to get to a few more of our calls, Because some of them, I think, I have another scientist running for Congress. Peter in Vancouver, welcome to Science Friday.

AUDIENCE: Hello, there. How are you doing, Ira?

IRA FLATOW: Fine. Tell us about what– you’re running for Congress?

AUDIENCE: Yes, I’m running for Congress here in Southwest Washington where our Republican representative is Jaime Herrera Beutler. And she’s an anti-science Republican. She voted for a bill called H.R.1431, which would reform the way that the EPA Science Advisory Board operates.

It would make it so that it has to be fairly balanced, equal numbers of climate science deniers with climate scientists. It would make it so that the presidential appointee is solely responsible for appointing members of that board, rather than letting the chairman pick them based on their qualifications. And it takes away their policy-making role in the EPA. It’s a horrible law.

IRA FLATOW: And you’re a scientist yourself?

AUDIENCE: Yes, I have a degree in biology, and a minor in chemistry, and a separate degree in computer science.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. And so how do you find backing to run against an entrenched congressperson?

AUDIENCE: That’s really hard. Because first of all, incumbents have all the advantages. But second to that, we don’t have year-round fundraising going on with a high profile. So we’re very dependent on people coming in and making even small donations to our campaigns.

And I’m running a lot of the campaign out of my own pocket at this point. We’re about $1,000 behind, in terms of expenses versus fundraising. And it’s a hard row.

IRA FLATOW: I’ll bet it is. Thanks for calling. And we’ll check back in with you, see how well you’re doing along the way. A lot of people– do you think there’s renewed interest? Bill, now people are finally saying, hey, maybe I could try this out?

BILL FOSTER: That’s right. And you can also enter public service at any level. There’s a real value to having scientists and those with technical expertise on the school boards, on the local school boards, or on the city council, or at a mayoral level, or really anywhere. You don’t necessarily have to start at the Senator or Congress.

IRA FLATOW: Right. Lydia, do you do you think that many scientists feel hesitant to get out and promote their work to politicians themselves?

LYDIA VILLA-KOMAROFF: Well, absolutely. I think they’re reluctant to get out their work to promote to anybody except granting agencies. And that’s partly because, when you’re asking for support for your work, you’re talking technical stuff. But when you have to go out and explain it to people– politicians or the general public– then you have to be able to make clear what it is that you do, and why it’s important to the world.

And we don’t get a whole lot of practice at that. So we’re not very good at it. And scientists are busy people doing their work. And it can be hard to find the time to learn how to communicate effectively with the public. And so as a result, I think, scientists say, uh, I don’t think I want to do that. I’m not so great at that.

IRA FLATOW: Meg, is there a tipping point, do you think, for scientists, where they just say, I’m mad as hell. I’m not going to take it anymore. I’m going to do something. Was there one for you?

MEG URRY: That’s a great question. I certainly think it’s great that there are scientists that are stepping up to run for office. And the skill sets aren’t the same being politicians and being scientists. But there certainly is overlap. Many of us are teachers. And we’re used to communicating about what we do.

And I’m grateful to the people who’ve done it. Bill’s been a big advocate for other physicists running for office, as were [INAUDIBLE] and Rush Holt when they were the–


BILL FOSTER: All scientists and engineers. I don’t stop at physicist. I would welcome, welcome more engineers.

MEG URRY: So I guess at some point, you have to speak out. And that’s a reasonable thing. Nobody should think that funding or support just comes naturally without having to ask. Scientists need to ask, just as other groups do.

But I do think we need to do a better job of explaining why. I heard a congressman– luckily, I can’t remember who– on the news one night, saying that it was really important to cut the budget and reduce the size of government. And in the next breath, he was talking about how we need to train more scientists and engineers for the coming decades. Because there will be so many issues for them to address.

And it made me realize that people don’t understand– not even Congressmen, apparently– that money that goes to scientist is paying their graduate students while they’re being trained. If you want to train people, it’s an expensive process. Universities pay a lot for it. They have endowments that help support it.

But some of the cost is from grant funding. And if I don’t have funding for a graduate student, I don’t train that graduate student. So simple things like that, we need to make it clear.

IRA FLATOW: I want to have funding. I have to remind everybody that I’m Ira Flatow. And this is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International talking about the March for Science. Is this also an opportunity?

We talk about the Trump voters, and who they are. And they feel disenfranchised. To get actually up close and personal with the public, the science has to be seen by the public, and find new ways of actually getting out locally, Bill, into their communities. Do we need a little bit more of that connection?

BILL FOSTER: Well, I think that our whole country has to step back and look at the Trump and the Bernie phenomenon. It is my opinion that it’s driven in large part by fears over technological job displacement, to which the first defense is to get better training in the STEM fields by everyone in society. And so that, I think, could be a tremendously positive outcome of this resurgence, and influence, and respect for science.

IRA FLATOW: Lydia, you agree?

LYDIA VILLA-KOMAROFF: I agree. I also think there’s another factor, which is the changing demographics of the country. I think that that’s very threatening of one group of disadvantaged people are being pitted almost against another group of disadvantaged people. And that has been unfortunate. Because both groups of people would be benefited if we did more and supported more of what’s going on in science and education.

IRA FLATOW: Some tweets before we go to break– some tweets, let me read them– from Rick, who says, science is political. Because so much of the funding for science derives from federal government sources like NIH, DOD, DOE, et cetera. Elizabeth writes, I care about science, because some of my closest friends and family care. It’s their future, so it’s my future too.

Other tweets coming in. Alex writes, I’m trying to keep it apolitical. I’ll be marching against pay walls that keep publicly-funded science from citizens. And I think a lot of people are trying to find a way. And it’s interesting, these people– we hear that these scientists are marching. No, everybody I just read, they’re not scientists. Lydia, you’re nodding your head.

LYDIA VILLA-KOMAROFF: I’m nodding my head. Because I think we would be more correct if we said this is a march of scientists and friends of scientists. It was Rush Holt that encouraged us to use that phraseology. Because that’s really what’s happening.

IRA FLATOW: All right. We’re going to take a short break, and come back and finish our discussion about the March for Science tomorrow. My guests, Lydia Villa-Komaroff, Meg Urry, Bill Foster, Congressman from 11th District of Illinois. Our number, if you want to get involved, is a good way to do it. Although, the phone lines are pretty busy– 844-724-8255. You can tweet us @SciFri. We’ll be back after this short break. Don’t go away.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking this hour about the March for Science that’s happening right here this weekend. We’re in Washington today, and all over the country. My guests, Lydia Villa-Komaroff, Meg Urry, Congressman Bill Foster. We’ve talked about scientists who would be participating.

But there is another big group who will be participating. And they are the teachers. My next guest is here to tell us why educators are gathering for the march. Dave Evans is Executive Director of the National Science Teaches Association. Welcome to Science Friday.

DAVE EVANS: Thank you. Glad to be here.

IRA FLATOW: And give us your take on the march, why you’re participating.

DAVE EVANS: Well, it’s really very simple. If you take a look at what the march is all about, then you have to understand that science education really provides the foundation for the public understanding for science. And it’s science education that educates, not only the scientists– the current ones, and the ones for the future– but it helps all of us understand science. And so teachers feel deeply committed to the overall goals of the march, and feel like they need to participate.

IRA FLATOW: Was there any hesitation on the NSTA at the beginning to support the march?

DAVE EVANS: I think there were questions. The march just sort of happened organically. And whenever that occurs, everyone has to worry a little bit about, where is this going? What’s the motivation? What are we going to do for goals?

But I think that, as the march came together, and the goals were sharpened, and focused, and it was clear that this is about informing the public about science and about the role of education in science, that it became really clear to us at that point that we absolutely had to participate. And frankly, the calls from teachers into our office was almost overwhelming encouraging us to participate as an organization.

IRA FLATOW: What would you like to see come out of the march? If this happens one day, and it’s all over, I don’t think anybody is going to be happy.

DAVE EVANS: Well, that’s certainly clear. One of the things that we really need to see more of is a broader understanding in the public at large about science. And that understanding has to start with interest and capturing people’s attention.

And I think there’s enough native interest in science, and that way of looking at the world, that if we capture people’s attention, and explain some of the issues, and point out some of the issues that are going on right now in the world that we’re living in, I think we’ll raise a level of attention that will provide support for teachers, and provide support for education around the country, as well as providing support for scientists.

IRA FLATOW: And the administration has indicated that it would like to downsize the Department of Education. What are they trying to do? How would this affect science teachers, in particular?

DAVE EVANS: We’re actually very concerned about that proposal. There are a lot of aspects to it. One of course, is the overall level of funding that would be provided to the department. And that would affect teachers of all subjects.

But right now, I think the biggest concern for science teachers is the proposal to eliminate one section of the Education Act that provides for professional development, professional learning for teachers. And right now, we’re out of time where we have new science standards that have been adopted across the country, and are continuing in the adoption process. Science teachers need professional learning in this new area, in order to do a better job of teaching science. And that’s a budget line that would be eliminated in the current proposal.

IRA FLATOW: There are fliers being mailed out to teachers now from conservative groups about how to teach global warming. There used to be flyers about how to teach creationism in the classroom. Are teachers aware of these inputs? And do you find a way that you can supply alternative– to the alternative facts that they’re pushing?

DAVE EVANS: Alternatives to the alternative facts, I like that. The short answer is yes. In fact, we heard about that mailing from the conservative organizations of sort of climate denial, non-science if you will, first from teachers. We have very active listservs and discussion groups that our organization supports. And the teachers there were questioning each other. Did you get this mailing? Do you know what that is?

And I have to tell you that the reaction was one of outrage. And so when we looked into it. we quickly responded to our membership, and more broadly, directed them to a lot of very high-quality materials that they can use instead. And most importantly, encouraged them to keep teaching science in the science classroom, and not to teach other things.

IRA FLATOW: And so what would you like to see come out of this? If you had one thing that you could choose, what would you like to see?

DAVE EVANS: I think better public awareness, so that there is better local support everywhere for science education.

IRA FLATOW: That’s where really education is. It’s a local issue.

DAVE EVANS: It’s a local issue.

IRA FLATOW: It’s where the money is.

DAVE EVANS: That’s exactly right. It’s a local issue. And I want to see that local awareness raised in every school district, so that every school supports the science teachers that are there, in order to help the kids prepare for the jobs of the future, and maybe more importantly, just to be good citizens to live in the world that we live in.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you. David Evans is Executive Director of the National Science Teachers Association. I want to bring back my other guests, Lydia Villa-Komaroff, Meg Urry, Congressman Bill Foster, you’ve been listening about education. You know how important, Bill, the science education is.

BILL FOSTER: Listening to that, I was thinking of some of the teachers that taught me, and got me interested in science. And they’ll never get the credit they deserve for the economic progress in our country for which science is an absolutely key element.

IRA FLATOW: And Meg Urry?

MEG URRY: Yeah, and also many high schools don’t teach advanced science at all. They just don’t have the funds to have, say, a physics teacher on their staff. So think of all the many kids who don’t even get this basic introduction to science at a level that would prepare them for college. I think it’s an easy way to lead to very high productivity in the future if we do better at teaching kids science in the K-12 area.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Should we be more focused on the educating of politicians or the public to grow bipartisan support for science? Meg, what do you think?

MEG URRY: Oh, what a good question. I guess the answer is we have to do both. I mean, politicians– I think Congress is– the people who are on the important committees, many of them are really well-informed and supportive. But yes, there are some who are not.

And the part of that is that, for many years, scientists were supported without needing to make their case explicitly. I think there’s no harm in doing that, right? If everybody knew that their cell phone is carrying a GPS thing that wouldn’t work without Einstein’s general relativity figured out 100 years ago when absolutely no one was thinking of putting a GPS in a phone– what was a phone? Some of these investments take decades to pay off.

So it’s not the kind of thing where you can say, OK, we’ll fund this for a year, and see what you’ve come up with. It’s really a long-term investment. And I guess to get sustained, public support, we need to be educating the public about what science is doing for them.

IRA FLATOW: Lydia, did you want to jump in?

LYDIA VILLA-KOMAROFF: Yes. I think if I had to make a choice between educating the public and educating politicians, I’d educate the public. Because the public’s responsibility is to choose those representatives in our House and Senate. And if more of us voted, and more of us took seriously that responsibility, and understood the consequences of our votes, then we might not be having this march.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones. Brian in Bloomington, Indiana. Hi, Brian. Welcome.

AUDIENCE: Hi, Ira. Hi, everyone on the panel. Thanks so much for doing this important episode.

IRA FLATOW: Go ahead.

AUDIENCE: Yup. So I’m a research scientist and do HIV research. And what really worries me, as one of your panel members said several times, I really hope that we don’t make this march on science political. And the reality is, this is political.

The politicians have made this political. And if you’re talking about the work I do, whether it’s the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, not saying the words HIV, AIDS during his entire administration, or preventing evidence-based policies on things like needle exchange in my home state of Indiana where we had the largest HIV outbreak since the 1980s, or bathroom bill shenanigans with transgender people, which translates into poor mental health, which influences risky behavior, the politicians have made this work political. And I think not recognizing it as such it is just unrealistic and dangerous. And it’s really one side of the aisle that we’re talking about here.

IRA FLATOW: OK, let me get a comment.

BILL FOSTER: Well, certainly the part of the debate over science that has to do with budgets, I think is intrinsically has to be political. Because ultimately, your budget is an expression of your priorities. I don’t think there’s any scientific principle that allows you to, for example, determine the optimum balance between pure and applied research. I think there just isn’t.

And so also, medical research can target long-term understanding of fundamental processes, or getting lots of drugs out in use immediately. And these are intrinsically political decisions. But I think we have to make sure that the underlying logic that are the inputs to these balances that are made at the end have to be based on good science.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think that there are politicians in Congress, even in the Senate side, who know in their own minds would like to be more sympathetic to the scientific method, but they’re afraid to come out in public and say that?

BILL FOSTER: Yes, I have had many conversations exactly along those lines, just because of the political box they’re in, sometimes because of gerrymandering, sometimes just because of the states they represent. And it kind of breaks my heart. Because these are smart people. But they understand that there’s a survival imperative in politics. And so under those circumstances, I think they have the duty to lean as far as they can while still surviving in favor of scientific truth.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think that they might evolve a little bit more as the political climate changes?

BILL FOSTER: Some of them are trying, some of them really are.

IRA FLATOW: Lydia, you’re nodding in agreement.

LYDIA VILLA-KOMAROFF: Both in agreement and in hope.

IRA FLATOW: In your role as an honorary co-chair, do you come across politicians who say, you know, I just can’t say it. I think it. I just can’t say it.

LYDIA VILLA-KOMAROFF: I have heard from people who have been directly involved in the process that have said, I want to go see so-and-so. They said, I would love to vote for you, but I can’t.

BILL FOSTER: Another thing that scientists can do– and just people that support science– just call into talk radio. A lot of people in– frankly, it’s largely rural districts– spend a lot of their time driving around listening to talk radio. And if we had more scientists standing up for science on these stations that they don’t normally listen to– no, of course, they should always listen to this program.

IRA FLATOW: But I get what you’re saying. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Let’s see if we can get a couple of phone calls in before we go. Let’s go to Hummelstown, PA. And Barb, welcome to Science Friday.

AUDIENCE: Thank you. I have been struggling, trying to decide whether to go to the Science March on the 22nd or the People’s Climate March on the 29th. I’m wondering if it’s good that there are two marches back-to-back? And I’m actually going to the Climate March. But will either one or both of them have an impact on the funding levels?

IRA FLATOW: Good question. Lydia, what do you think?

LYDIA VILLA-KOMAROFF: I don’t know that we’ll see an immediate impact. I think that these marches, their biggest impact is longer-term. That’s my hope. It would be wonderful if there were a shorter-term impact. But I don’t know that there can be. I suspect our Congressman can tell us more about that.

IRA FLATOW: Bill, what do–

BILL FOSTER: Well, I have to say that psychoanalyzing the majority who controls Congress is not always a winning game. And so I will pass on that question.

IRA FLATOW: OK, let’s go to Anchorage. Let me see if I can get Anchorage picked up on our board over here. And come on. Let me press that button. Ah, technology, it’s wonderful. Ted. Hi, Ted. Welcome to Science Friday.

AUDIENCE: Yeah, hi, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Hi, there.

AUDIENCE: I’m fascinated by this discussion. And I wanted to add an interesting perspective. I’ll be marching tomorrow. But like many scientists, I’ve been discouraged by partisan politics. And when I was teaching– a science teacher back in Wisconsin– I decided to actually run for a local nonpartisan elected office.

And I got elected. And the perspective I want to share is– for people who are wondering, what do we do after the march? I would like to see my science friends and colleagues get involved as politicians. Because what I found was, in my role as an elected politician, I was able to bring science and scientific thinking to our debates.

And I think, as scientists, we’re aware of our biases. And we try to let the data guide us. And I was really pleased that my experiment ended up kind of working. In essence, what I found was, even though I’m a progressive, sometimes I voted with my conservative colleagues. Because they had the better argument. They had the better data.

And I think scientists can maybe– getting involved in politics can, perhaps, bridge this divide between the parties. Because I think if we’re true to science, and we let the data guide us, and we bring that to policy discussions, I think it’s– it was an incredible experience. And I hope to get involved in politics up here in Anchorage.

So I encourage my colleagues, get involved in politics. And there are research-based ways to get elected. So it fits perfect with our scientific thinking.


BILL FOSTER: Yeah, the advantage of getting involved at the local level is it allows you to bypass what I think is probably the largest barrier to entry, which is fundraising. It is a horrible feature of our system that you have to raise a lot of money, one way or another, to have a realistic chance of winning a congressional or Senate seat. But that’s not true if you get elected to the school board, the city council, the mayor’s–

A well-known mayor in a district is the best kind of recruits to go on to the next level of government. And so if you’re willing to take the long road, you can bypass that hurdle, which is– it’s the roughest [INAUDIBLE].

IRA GLASS: It’s cheaper. You have fewer voters. And you have fewer candidates.

BILL FOSTER: Yup. You can start out for city council by knocking on every door of those who will elect you.

IRA GLASS: Yeah, I know someone in my local district. She knocked on every door. She got elected to the state’s Congress. And she did it very simply.

Well, we’ve run out of time. We could go on talking all day. Let me thank my guests, Lydia Villa-Komaroff, who’s co-chair of the March for Science and co-founder of the Society for the Advancement of Chicano Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, Meg Urry, professor of physics and astronomy at Yale University, past president of the American Astronomical Society. Congressman Bill Foster represents Illinois’s 11th District in the US House of Representatives, and also David Evans, who was Executive Director of the National Science Teachers Association. Thank you all.


MEG URRY: Pleasure to be here.

IRA GLASS: Charles Bergquist is our director. Senior producer is Christopher Intagliata. Our producers are Alexa Lim, Christie Taylor, Katie Hiler. Rich Kim, our technical director. Sarah Fishman and Jack Horowitz, our engineers at the controls at the studios of our production partners, the City University of New York. We’d also thank our engineers here in Washington, Ted Mebane and Melissa Marquis from NPR in DC.

And if you’d like to keep the conversation going, everyday is Science Friday. And now on the web, you go to sciencefriday.com. Also we’re on Facebook and Twitter. And we’ll hope to see you at the march tomorrow. I’m Ira Flatow in Washington.

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