I am writing this essay on the day of the March, which will happen in Washington DC and apparently 500 other cities, including several in Australia, where the March is happening as I write. What is it about? There is apparently a ‘war on science’, though who is conducting it is not clear. From its US website you can get this mission statement.
The March for Science champions robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity. We unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest.
The March for Science is a celebration of science. It’s not only about scientists and politicians; it is about the very real role that science plays in each of our lives and the need to respect and encourage research that gives us insight into the world. Nevertheless, the march has generated a great deal of conversation around whether or not scientists should involve themselves in politics. In the face of an alarming trend toward discrediting scientific consensus and restricting scientific discovery, we might ask instead: can we afford not to speak out in its defense?
People who value science have remained silent for far too long in the face of policies that ignore scientific evidence and endanger both human life and the future of our world. New policies threaten to further restrict scientists’ ability to research and communicate their findings. We face a possible future where people not only ignore scientific evidence, but seek to eliminate it entirely. Staying silent is a luxury that we can no longer afford. We must stand together and support science.
Well, I can support some of this, though puzzled about why there is or has to be a march, and whom the marchers are trying to reach. And reasonable people will probably disagree about the nature of ‘policies that ignore scientific evidence’, let alone what is to count as ‘scientific evidence’ in particular cases. And I would be one of many who will who shake their heads at the notion of an ‘alarming trend toward discrediting scientific consensus’, as though ‘consensus’ among scientists was anything more than the current status quo about an issue, always subject to new argument and new evidence. Any such consensus can quickly become an echo-chamber, especially if money and prestige are involved.
Exploring the US website takes us a little way. Who is organising the march? The leaders and the organising committee seem to be markedly young people, and another part of the statement tells us that the organisers are sorry that they had not earlier made clear their opposition to racism, sexism, ableism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, or any form of bigotry. Their statement of principles is good reading. There are six Principles and five Goals. Here’s a bit of the first Principle:
Science that serves the common good
Scientists work to build a better understanding of the world around us. Science is a process, not a product — a tool of discovery that allows us to constantly expand and revise our knowledge of the universe. In doing so, science serves the interests of all humans, not just those in power…
Who could disagree? Some of us might want to suggest mildly that scientists are not the only people who ‘work to build a better understanding of the work around us’, and the first Principle does go on a bit about the belief that inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility in science are critical to ensure that science reaches its potential to serve all communities. I’m not sure they are. Science, I think, is ultimately about results, not inclusion.
Principle Two is about evidence-based policy, and let’s have cheer or two about that. Some of us of a sceptical bent see far too much policy-based evidence for our liking. Principle Two tells us also about the importance of peer review, which is a sacred cow for academics, though not for anyone else much. Principle Three wants us to support science education that teaches children and adults to think critically, ask questions, and evaluate truth based on the weight of evidence, and again, a cheer or two for that thought. Principal Four bangs the drum again for ‘diversity and inclusion’, because the lack of it thwarts scientific advancement. Worse, it affects the questions we seek to answer, who participates in studies, and, critically, what communities benefit from the innovations and services that science provides. Maybe. I’d like a bit of peer-reviewed evidence before marching behind that banner.
Principle Five seeks open honest science and inclusive public outreach, and is opposed to gag rules on scientists, among other things, and the Sixth Principle is the one I had been waiting for: money, or ‘robustly funded…science’. Here it is in full.
De-funding and hiring freezes in the sciences are against any country’s best interests. We believe that the federal budget should reflect the powerful and vital role that science plays in supporting our democracy. We advocate federal funding in support of research, scientific hiring, and agency application of science to management. This funding cannot be limited to a few fields or specific demographics — scientific support must be inclusive of diverse disciplines and communities.
I have been hearing such cries, both in specific form and more generally, since I became a member of academic staff in 1965, more than half a century ago. In the USA, federal funding is important, but private sector funding is twice as large. There is not a mention of the private sector in anything have read on the website. What has happened to funding for science? A quick comparison, courtesy of the World Bank, shows that in the USA, total funding on R&D, as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product, rose from 2.44 per cent in 1996 to 2.73 per cent in 2013. In that time American GDP rose by 60 per cent. In Australia, the rise was even more impressive, from 1.66 per cent of GDP to 2.2 per cent, and in our country private sector expenditure was a little more than government expenditure. In practical terms, most of R&D money goes to science because it is much more expensive than the humanities and the social sciences.
In short, it simply isn’t true that there has been some kind of attack on funding. Yes, there was a lower injection of public money into both the ARC and the NHMRC a couple of years ago, when all government expenditure was cut in the budget, and in the USA there is much less certainty about annual funding for any publicly-funded institution or program than there is here. Having said that, it is unclear what the Principle is seeking, unless it is some kind of certainty in funding,mand probably an annual increase as well. That can’t be possible in any democratically elected system of governance.
So what is the supposed ‘war on science’? I wrote about the phrase a few months ago. There was a book with such a title published a while ago by by Shawn Otto, and the reviews I read suggested it was a wild swing at pretty well everything and everybody. If there is such a war I can see no sign of it. President Trump is said to be engaging in one, but every President of the USA selects his own people and his own priorities. I can’t see why science needs a march just at this moment, or what the marchers hope to achieve by entering into it, other than getting some healthy exercise and feeling part of a same-thinking group.
I might venture that some scientists might feel that it is wrong for people who haven’t had to learn the hard way, via postgraduate degrees and hard slog at the lab bench, to make judgments about their work. If that sentiment exists then those scientists need to recognise that the world has moved on. In our country they are funded overwhelmingly through the public purse, and the rest of us who have helped to pay for their employment them have a perfect case to ask how the money has been spent and to inspect the results.
In the case of the young people who seem to be the ringleaders of the March, and whose savvy with social media has probably helped to make this a world-wide event, my suspicion is that they are at least in large part worried that there might not be jobs for them, after their years as postgrads and postdocs. Maybe they are right.
Oh, I didn’t mention the goals of the March. You can read them for yourselves. They amount to a restating of the principles that I’ve summarised above.
And I’ll bet that the ABC gives the event some real airtime tonight. If I’m wrong (there is a family dinner on) at least one reader will point this out.