18 April 2006

Show Up.

How involved in politics should scientists be? What factors are important when it comes to making that decision?

For some of us, the answer to that comes fairly easily. One or two of us managed to evade the stereotype of the scientist-of-the-future, and caught the involvement bug because we were popular enough to win a role in student government early in our lives. A few of us were caught in a different stereotype - the children of the flower children - and have never known what it is like to not be involved in political causes. A bunch of scientists are just plain incapable of keeping their noses out of anything they bump into, whether it directly involves science or not.

The decision is harder for others. There are a few scientists who really do have an ivory tower mindset, and actively try to avoid anything that smacks of politics. Many put so many hours into their science that they don't have any to spare for politics. More are apathetic to politics, or disillusioned, or simply unaware of the issues.

Both the involved and uninvolved should read a new article in PLoS Biology. The article, "Scientific Illiteracy and the Partisan Takeover of Biology," provides both reasons to get more involved in the political process and some hints as to where the efforts of scientists might most effectively be focused.

The article, written by Liza Gross, focuses on the work of Dr. Jon Miller, who has spent decades studying the public perception of science. Some of what he has to say is depressing (if not terrifying). Some of his message raises the possibility that there is still hope. All of it is worth reading.

The key point made in the article is this:
"The era of nonpartisan science is gone."

That's a fairly bold statement, but it is true.

As the article points out:
It's not that Americans are rejecting science per se, Miller maintains, but longstanding conflicts between personal religious beliefs and selected life-science issues has been exploited to an unprecedented degree by the right-wing fundamentalist faction of the Republican Party. In the 1990s, the state Republican platforms in Alaska, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, Oregon, Missouri, and Texas all included demands for teaching creation science. Such platforms wouldn't pass muster in the election, Miller says, but in the activist-dominated primaries, they drive out moderate Republicans, making evolution a political litmus test. Come November, the Republican candidate represents a fundamentalist agenda without making it an explicit part of the campaign. Last year, Miller points out, former Senator John Danforth, a moderate Missouri Republican, wrote in a New York Times opinion piece that for the first time in American history a political party has become an arm of a religious organization. The United States is the only country in the world where a political party has taken a position on evolution.
So what is a scientist do do? Miller has a suggestion that might come as a shock to some. If you don't like the way that the fundamentalists treat science, then get involved:
The era of nonpartisan science is gone, says Miller, who urges scientists and science educators to learn the rules of this new game and get behind moderate Republicans as well as Democrats to protect the practice and teaching of sound science. Given the partisan attack on evolution and stem-cell research, he thinks scientists need to learn more about how the political process works. They need to be willing to run for the school board, write $500 or even $5,000 checks to support moderate candidates, and defeat Christian right-wing candidates. “Scientists need to become involved in partisan politics and to oppose candidates who reject evolution or attack scientific research,” he says. “It takes time, money, and paying attention to the issues.”
For most scientists, both time and money are limiting resources, but that is a hurdle that must be overcome. In politics, the decisions are made by those who show up. If we want things to change, we need to get involved.

Not everyone has money to donate to a political campaign. Time, on the other hand, is something else. We might not have as much of it as we want (or need), but we always have some. Running for the school board takes a lot of time. Speaking during the public comment period of a school board meeting takes a lot less. Writing your congresscritter takes even less - in fact, you could have written one in less than the time it's taken you to read this. You might not be able to do much, but there's no excuse for doing nothing. It's time to show up.
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