19 March 2018

Standing up by sitting down

Posted by Shane Hanlon

By Raj Pandya

I have a sticker on my laptop that says, “Stand Up for Science.” Nice, but how do you really stand up for science?

One way to stand up for science is to be visible, en masse, with your friends. You can organize marches or join existing marches. The March for Science may be the most well-known example of this—millions of people, many of the them practicing scientists, peaceably assembling in cities around the world. And the March for Science isn’t a one-time thing; there are lots of ongoing actions that you can find taking place at scientific societies and organizations around the country and world.

You can follow and inform federal policy. AAAS (the American Association for the Advancement of Science) has the most rigorous and consistent set of tools for looking at federal budgets. The American Institute of Physics, especially its FYI resource center, managed by Mike Henry, is a great resource for more insight on federal science policy. For a focus on geoscience, Science Policy at AGU is up to date, accurate and active, and the American Meteorological Society’s Policy Program provides a thoughtful approach to the weather and climate side. For a very up-to-the-minute and deep dive into climate-related science policy, Missy Stultz produces a vivid weekly newsletter called science-to-action. (Reach out if you’d like a connection.)

But don’t neglect efforts at smaller scales. State legislatures may not invest in science research, but they make decisions that impact science policy, and they can be powerful allies at the federal level. The same is true for large cities, and for the coalitions of smaller cities that are working together through organizations like the National League of Cities. Climate change adaptation, for example, is one area where states and cities are moving faster to act than the federal government. The point here isn’t to criticize federal climate policy but to show that the federal level isn’t the only place science-related policy happens. You can stand up for science locally.

And you should. In fact, what I most want to say in this blog is that the local arena is the place where our efforts to stand up for science can be most productive, especially if we are thinking in the long term.  Regardless of how you feel about any particular moment or leader, the long view reminds us that there is always another opportunity and the potential for a change in approach. In the words of a Turkish proverb, you are never too far down the wrong road to turn back.

So, how do you stand up for science locally?

Locally, we aren’t only scientists, we are friends, colleagues, and neighbors. We are the people you run into at the market, the people who hold the door open when your hands are full, and the people who help you jump your car when the battery dies. That local connection is our strength, and our science can be piece of that—a special kind of jumper cables to offer a neighbor when they need it and want it.

So, as scientists, the most important thing we can do to stand up for science is to sit down, listen, and find a way to contribute.  Sit down with your neighbors and figure out, together, what you can do to make the neighborhood better. Show up at a city council meeting and listen to the conversation. Volunteer at school, partly to share your science, but partly to understand what kids are worried about. (Tip, talk to the teacher, first and ask how your science could contribute to his or her curriculum and be patient if the fit isn’t immediate or it takes a while.) Give talks at rotary clubs or senior centers but spend most of your time asking and listening. Host an open science night at your favorite bar and pay attention to what people ask about and what they care about. Reach out to local leaders, including informal leaders, and ask them about what they are tackling. Don’t be afraid to try out new or unusual places—churches, after-school centers, community groups. And in all of this, the most important thing is to listen for ways that the science you know, or the scientists you know, might be useful.

To go even further, think about how you can be a neighbor to folks not only in your current community but in the community where you grew up. Many of us have relocated to pursue education and postdocs and careers. While it’s not your fault you had to move away, this relocation contributes to the disconnect. Think about how you might be able to engage with your hometown, at least in a small way.  I owe something to Rockford, Ill., the Midwestern city I grew up in that is struggling hard with the transition to a post-industrial economy.

In the end, I really believe the most effective long-term strategy for standing up for science is to sit down and offer science, with humility, as something useful. I think this approach is critical to long term, bipartisan, universal support for science. That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t do other things to stand up for science, like lobby or march, but we can’t do it at the expense of offering science as a way of contributing to a better world. And we can’t do that without sitting down, as equals, with our neighbors and figuring out how our science fits in. Standing up, in this case, means sitting down.

-Raj Pandya is the Director of AGU’s Thriving Earth Exchange