A new era for science in America
Over the next two weekends, scientists are busting out of the laboratories, taking a break from field research, and getting political. On April 22, Earth Day, the March for Science will defend the basic principles of truth and scientific fact. One week later, many scientists will converge again on Washington, D.C., and other satellite locations to push their broad values into action at the People’s Climate March.
In scientific terms, the working hypothesis behind the scientific community participating in the marches is that by speaking up, scientists can actually influence political action in a way that protects the public.
I reached out to two young scientists who have waded into political advocacy over the past few years as they’ve seen the climate crisis deepen and elected officials fail to deliver solutions. Ploy Achakulwisut is a Ph.D. candidate in atmospheric science at Harvard University—a climate scientist, in other words. Geoffrey Supran recently earned his Ph.D. researching LEDs and solar photovoltaics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at MIT and Harvard, working on renewable energy modeling. I first met Achakulwisut and Supran at the United Nations annual climate conference in Lima, Peru, in 2014, where they were working the booth together for SustainUS, a youth-led group that advocates for justice and sustainability.
Achakulwisut and Supran will be participating in the March for Science’s satellite event in Boston, then traveling together (they are also a couple—the kind of couple that gives you some hope for the world) to Washington, D.C., to walk shoulder to shoulder with the masses as part of the “Defenders of Truth” faction in the flagship People’s Climate March. As Achakulwisut put it, “The Science March is about respecting science, the People’s Climate March is about acting on it.”
They were kind enough to indulge me as I tried to consider the March for Science and the People’s Climate March through the context of the scientific method, which, if you’ve forgotten your high school science fairs, involves asking a question, conducting background research, proposing a hypothesis, running an experiment, analyzing the results, and presenting a conclusion.
Question: Can scientists do a better job protecting the public from threats like climate change by becoming politically active?
Scientists aren’t typically known for their activism, but facing Trump administration cuts to science funding across agencies and policy proposals that flout scientific realities, researchers and engineers and modelers across dozens of scientific fields are feeling desperate.
Achakulwisut and Supran both said they got into science to help the world—to provide a valuable service, participate in a process that helps society, and “protect the people and places we love.”
“Attacks on science don’t just hurt scientists, they hurt scientists’ ability to protect the people, and climate change epitomizes that,” said Supran.
“Attacks on science aren’t new,” he continued. “Politicians and special interests have been undermining the role of science for years now on a number of issues. What we see, though, is that President Trump is a threat multiplier. He has essentially turned skirmishes and attacks on science into an all-out war, and in so doing is endangering the people and places we love by putting ideology before facts.”
Background research: science-based advocacy successes
Despite the general perception that scientists aren’t political, there is a proud—if limited—history of science-based advocacy.
“The ozone hole is maybe the greatest example,” explained Achakulwisut, “where you had a prominent scientist like Sherwood Roland, who won a Nobel Prize for his research on the issue, and was very vocal talking about the role of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) in depleting the ozone layer and pushed for regulation despite industry opposition.
Supran went farther back in history, “Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr really stepped into the fray and were very vocal about the need for nuclear arms regulations. And far from undermining the credibility of scientists, they made their science relevant to real world problems.”
He also pointed me to a more recent example that is uniquely relevant to the current antagonism that American scientists face—the Canadian scientists who protested then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s crackdown on scientific research. There was even a “Death of Evidence” march in Ottawa that featured a mock funeral. One of the organizers of that march recently sent a message to American scientific colleagues in a New York Times op-ed:
Evidence and objective reality are the foundation of successful policy and governance. Openness is as vital to science as it is to democracy. We cannot allow hard-won knowledge to be ignored or distorted. To fight the snuffing of the light of scientific inquiry, learn from your neighbors to the north. Reject interference. Stay vigilant and stay vocal. In other words, stay scientists.
Some scientists still worry that their credibility is impaired by advocacy. Achakulwisut points to hard evidence that it doesn’t, in (of course) the form of a recent peer-reviewed study that found that public perception remains high for scientists who advocate publicly. The paper’s abstract states plainly that “climate scientists who wish to engage in certain forms of advocacy have considerable latitude to do so without risking harm to their credibility, or the credibility of the scientific community.”
Hypothesis: By engaging in politics, scientists can better protect the public from threats like climate change
As Supran noted, advocacy worked recently in Canada, in so far as the public became galvanized against Harper’s antiscience agenda and voted him out in the next election after the “Death of Evidence” action. In the case of the ozone hole and CFCs, public advocacy forced political action that actually solved the problem.
If you want to spend some time really marinating on this hypothesis, Supran recommended a great talk called “The Scientist as Sentinel” by Dr. Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard and Supran’s current advisor.
Experiment: marching for science, marching for climate action
This experiment is playing out in real time, as more and more scientists find their political voices and some feel emboldened to advocate for climate action like Roland, Molina, and Crutzen did for the ozone hole back in the 1980s.
When I asked Achakulwisut and Supran it they had specific motivations for marching, they gave a properly scientific response.
“There are behaviors and policies that we see are directly antithetical to our understanding of basic science and engineering,” said Supran. “And those are valid reasons for us as scientists to be motivated to march ourselves and to encourage our colleagues to do the same.”
Those reasons? First, explained Supran, is the climate denial at the upper reaches of government. “We know that the first step to solving a problem is recognizing that there is one. And this administration won’t even do that. As technical people, we know definitively that this is a real problem.”
Second is the concept of “unburnable carbon,” which Achakulwisut described:
“We know we can’t burn the majority of proven fossil fuel reserves and still stay below the 2 degrees Celsius global warming limit. This scientific finding opened our eyes to the urgency of the problem and it kick-started the divestment movement, which we are both involved with at our schools.”
Third and finally, they talked about the need for pricing carbon through the lens of “uncertainty” in climate modeling. “This going to get kind of technical,” Supran warned, “but if you look at the most advanced models we have for understanding what actions are necessary to keep temperatures below the 2 degree danger limit, the absence of a price on carbon creates the greatest uncertainty—more than geophysical uncertainties, social uncertainties, technological uncertainties. We can actually say plainly that this failure of politics to put a price on carbon in the broadest sense is incompatible with what we know we need to do. And that motivates us.”
Analysis: what to watch for
With the experiment underway, we can’t yet run a proper analysis. But we can point to the type of results that would be meaningful.
Achakulwisut and Supran both talked about how government data is “central to our ability to do work as climate scientists.”
“The fact that some climate-related data is disappearing from government databases is scary,” said Achakulwisut. “Data is our bread and butter. It’s how we understand the problem.”
Supran added: “Yesterday I must have pulled from six different government archives using data on solar and wind capacity and other things. Recently it’s been on the back of my mind—what if this disappears? I never used to think about it.”
It’s not just the preservation of existing databases that must be fought for, but the continued gathering of new data for long-term studies. “One reason we know so much about climate change is that NASA has deployed a fleet of Earth-observing satellites since 1999,” Achakulwisut described. “They collect data on everything from temperature and precipitation to underground aquifers and ocean currents to wildfires, soil moisture, and storms. These are all valuable data that underpin our research into how humans are changing the Earth's climate system. And now President Trump is proposing budget cuts to these Earth-monitoring programs. I use all that data in my research; it’s freely available. It will definitely impact scientists’ ability to do research if this data disappears or if the monitoring program is allowed to expire.”
But again, it’s not just the protection of science that Achakulwisut and Supran are marching for. It’s the hope that the science they work on will be put to use use and create meaningful public policy.
"I chose to pursue a Ph.D. in climate science because I thought that this was the best way I could contribute to addressing one of the world’s most pressing problems, and I think many climate scientists feel this way,” said Achakulwisut.
Conclusion and next steps: What should scientists do after the marches?
While we can’t yet offer a conclusion, Achakulwisut and Supran already have good ideas for how these “experiments” should proceed after the marches.
“We know that the marches won’t change everything. We do have a hope based on experience that the People’s Climate March can provide a waypoint for what social scientists call momentum-driven organizing,” said Supran.
Going forward, though, they argue that scientists need to embrace public engagement, a point that Achakulwisut hammered home in a recent op-ed for Scientific American. “I think we need to think about how we can be better communicators, how we can share why we do the science, and its importance and relevance in society,” she told me. “But there’s almost no real cultural incentive or professional incentive for scientists to speak out and do outreach. Many academic institutions—as signaled by faculty evaluations—currently don’t put any value on public engagement and advocacy, like presentations at local schools or working with community groups.”
“We need to do a better jobs as scientists to incentivize one another to reach out to engage both professionally and in the community,” Supran added. “Professionally, we can be more active providing feedback on government reports, in giving testimony, and speaking to the media in areas we study. But in the community, too, there are so many opportunities to provide the expertise and the enthusiasm about their scientific knowledge to local grassroots groups and to local schools.”
They give one great example of this engagement in action—perhaps a model for how scientists can make a real impact at the local level. A friend of theirs, Nathan Phillips, a professor at Boston University, has been working with the group Mothers Out Front to find methane leaks around the state. Because methane is a particularly potent greenhouse gas, these leaks are speeding up climate change. Phillips is taking his climate science to the streets, working with community groups, and together they have successfully fought for new local and state policies that will combat this particular climate threat.
Achakulwisut and Supran see the March for Science and the People’s Climate March as critical for alerting the Trump administration and leaders in Washington that they “ignore climate science at their own peril.” But in two weeks when the marches are done, these young scientists will be back at work in their labs. And, critically, they will be bringing their work out into the world, using their knowledge and expertise to help push for good public policy that will protect us all from the worst threats of climate change.
Photo credit: Shadia Fayne Wood | Survival Media Agency