Open Thread | What does the way forward look like for scientists?

| March 30, 2017 | Leave a Comment

Image by Mike Melrose from Dartmoor National Park Authority | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

What does the way forward look like for scientists? Should they be engaging as advocates and activists?

“I’m firmly convinced that scientists MUST speak out, demonstrate, and do anything else they can in the face of what I (and my closest colleagues) believe to be an existential threat of which Trump is but a symptom. … We need to raise a new generation of scientist advocates and activists.  We also need to kill the old nonsensical idea that if scientists fulfill their citizenship responsibilities they are damaging science.”

—Paul R. Ehrlich

Gretchen Goldman, John Holdren, and Jane Lubchenco’s shared their thoughts on the topic during the recent American Association of the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston, as reported by Robyn Williams with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

What do you think? Are you a scientist who has found a constructive way to engage as an advocate and/or activist? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below, and don’t forget to mark your calendars for the March for Science on April 22nd!

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The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.
  • Max Kummerow

    I’m old (71). I think I detect an evolution of passivity in scientists. When I was a pup (around 1960 ish) it was scientists happy role to retreat into labs, do experiments, find that a causes b (in my first lab assistant job we found that french fryer fat gives rats liver cancer). The idea was to publish it, go back to the lab and do it again. Society would then take the better mousetrap you found and the scientist could remain objective and uninvolved, as he (usually he) should be in the unrelenting effort to add to the cumulative mountain of useful knowledge. A grateful society would shower more research funds and admiration on the scientists who had cured polio, etc. There was a period in the middle somewhere when the (fake) pose of objectivity was seen as a way to be more credible in testimony relevant to policy. (Your children are going to die if we continue to pollute, but whether or not to pollute is an issue beyond the responsibilities of us independent, objective scientists.) Nowadays with universities sponsored by industry and wealthy alumni and the exhorbitant tuition of their customers (formerly called students), scientists have learned to shut up to avoid offending funding sources, Christian students and administrators.

    In my opinion, the scientific paradigm is failing and people no longer respect science much because they know industry can rent scientists willing to say anything, scientists are more concerned about their funding than about fixing real world problems. And, in truth, in complex systems we can’t say a causes b. All we can say is maybe it will get warmer but we don’t know how fast–it’s complicated. Universities should stop promoting ecologists based on publication and start promoting them for being effective in saving ecosystems from destruction. Objectivity was always fake, any action implies values. Philosopher of Science Russell Hanson figured that out in the 1950s, “all data is value laden.”

    But it gets worse. We are still eating french fries. Science doesn’t automatically get applied, especially if it goes against economic interests of the rich and powerful. Or even the poor and lazy. They loved us when we said, “Here is the cure for ……. They aren’t so happy when we say “stop having so many kids and being so greedy or you’ll wreck the earth. Convenient lies sell better than inconvenient truths. It is past time to stand up and be counted.

    • The funding issue is significant, as is power and laziness, but I disagree about the impossibility of objectivity. You can have objective results, but it’s the choice of the area to investigate and the policy results that can be value-laden (even if that value is just the desire to understand). We need to accept that complex systems come with error bars, but we should be able to see our range of perturbations to those systems and express appropriate informed concerned.

      I found Lubchenko’s comments closest to the mark.

  • Dana Visalli

    As usual, I agree with Ehrlich, but find most of the rest of the offering to be pablum. The United States spends a trillion dollars a year to kill ‘other’ human beings (counting the hidden expenses) and further damage the biosphere. There are 5000 nuclear weapons ready to destroy most of the biosphere in the next 24 hours. The United States has slaughtered between 20 million and 30 million human beings since the end of World War II; and all scientists have to say in response is, ‘the Earth’s temperature is going up 2 degrees.’ Is there one scientist among you who has refused to spend your life paying for hydrogen bombs and the destruction of the biosphere? I doubt it. So you are concerned about the climate. Has any one among you stopped flying in jet planes, stopped driving 10,000 miles a year? What is the square-footage of your house– or houses– which are made out of the very fabric of the biosphere? And while we’re at it, here’s a question I find nobody can answer accurately: There is an estimated 600 billion tons of biomass on the planet, mostly in the form of trees. About 100 billion is added every year, but about that quantity decays. Here’s the question: What is the primary molecular constituent of that 600 billion tons of biomass? Do you know? Most people say ‘water’ or ‘dirt’ or ‘soil’ or ‘humus,’ but those answers are wrong. What is the single most critical chemical compound to life on Earth? Dare you say it out loud?
    [As an aside, there is a worthwhile paper titled Human domination of the biosphere: Rapid
    discharge of the earth-space battery foretells the future of humankind…..the authors claim that biomass has decreased from 1000 billion tons to 600 billion tons due to Homo sapiens]
    People talk about ‘systems thinking’ (which is actually an oxy-moron, because thought is by its nature fragmentary and not capable of perceiving deep natural complexity) but it appears to me that most scientists can only entertain one ecological issue at a time.

    • trilemmaman

      So how many times have you met with your Member of Congress to explain to them what they need to know to make both our environmental and political system sustainable? Obviously, neither are. And I”m guessing few on this list have bothered to develop a working relationship with their ‘representative’ to our dysfunctional government system. I disagree that human thought in incapable of perceiving deep natural complexity. As a child it was clear early on watching the destruction of the environment around me growing up. And studying biology and it’s links to all other sciences only amplified that perception. There’s massive amounts of information I don’t know and cannot learn in my lifetime. But it’s clear that ignoring ‘systems thinking’ will only make matters worse. With our current political system based on the illusionary concept of “independence” let me offer some alternative oxy-morons. Cyber Security. Bio security. National Security. Independent thinking.

      • stevenearlsalmony

        These clarion calls are long overdue.

    • Non-scientist here. Dana expresses understandable outrage, but as a result confuses knowledge, communication, political action and personal action. Many change their behaviour with heartfelt values and little knowledge, but more knowledge helps direct the good intentions more effectively.

      The article by Schramski, Gattie and Brown on ‘Human domination of the biosphere’ is indeed interesting and reminded me how wood should not be considered a renewable fuel and the importance of sustainable forestry in Africa. I’m a little surprised bacteria aren’t included in their calculations, as they might double biomass to 1200 Gt – phytoplankton are a small percentage and declining, possibly as a result of warming.

      So I’m not sure what the answer is to “What is the primary molecular constituent of that 600 billion tons of biomass?” Is it a polysaccharide (presumably cellulose) or generic protein? Elemental constituents we may remember as CHONPS.