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Frederic Raphael

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Why I Will March for Science on Saturday

Posted on Apr 20, 2017

By Laurie Garrett / Foreign Policy

(Page 2)

Yes, Earth is round and it orbits the sun.

Yes, your feet stay on the ground unless you use a lot of energy to leap, because of gravity.

Yes, the lettuce on your salad plate came from plants that grew in soil by converting carbon dioxide and sunlight into their roots, stalks, and leaves, expiring oxygen. It’s called photosynthesis, a process the planet’s first bacterial life forms employed, drifting on the surface of the seas some 3.5 billion years ago, creating the oxygen-rich atmosphere you are now breathing.

Yes, creatures evolve under stress and genetic selection pressure, and that rate of evolution generally depends on the life form’s reproductive rate. Those that reproduce, like viruses, over a few minutes’ time may genetically evolve in a matter of days; those that reproduce every 20 or 30 years (such as Homo sapiens) may take hundreds of centuries to evolve in significant ways.

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There will be many issues driving scientists to march on Saturday, from their pocketbooks to the sheer joy of solving nature’s puzzles unhindered. Having taken my undergraduate training in biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, done graduate work in immunology at the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University, and postgraduate study at the Harvard School of Public Health, I am steeped in the firmament of the hypothesis-driven, reductionist view of life and its trillions of curiosities. But when I march it won’t be the scientific method that drives me, but a few key characters and episodes in my life.

I will march thinking of a man who sat next to me some 30 years ago on a domestic flight, reading the latest edition of the American Spectator, published by the John Birch Society. When I told the businessman that I made a living writing about science, he proclaimed the entire endeavor of research an illegitimate recipient of taxpayers’ money, insisting that the only good science was done in service of corporate earnings. I asked, “But haven’t you ever looked at a butterfly and wondered why it was brightly colored, or wandered through an orchard of blooming cherry blossoms and gasped at their glory, asking why and how such spectacular pinkness occurred?” No, the man said emphatically, adding that the questions were “stupid.” And so I will march thinking of how astonished I was at the very idea of a human without a sense of wonder, recalling the eerie omen of bottom-line thinking about the utility of science that lay inherent in his attitude - one it seems our president is sympathetic to.

I wish when I had that unnerving conversation 30 years ago I had more facts on hand about the profitability of taxpayer-funded science. One U.S. agency alone - the National Institutes of Health (NIH) - issued 365,380 grants to scientists from 1980 to 2007, 9 percent of which resulted in patented discoveries and an additional 31 percent linked to patent applications. Among grants given for disease research, an astounding 35 percent led to patents. Not every patent translates into millions of dollars’ worth of profits, but a 35 percent patent rate in the research-and-development section of a technology or pharmaceutical corporation would be considered spectacular.

I will march thinking of a Soviet-trained immunologist I met in Irkutsk in the 1990s who insisted his people would never recover from the Cold War and build a decent democracy because Russians were, he said, “genetically inferior remnants” of Slavic humanity - the best having been systematically exterminated by tsarist pogroms of Jews and the Stalinist genocide of intellectuals and dissidents. That tsarist and Soviet slaughter had transpired was undeniable, but such baseless claims of genetic inferiority, coming from a powerful scientist, were shocking.

I will march recalling getting off a train in Surat, India, in 1994 amid an outbreak of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes plague, to discover that the elite classes had abandoned the diamond-cutting city, along with all but five physicians, leaving pharmacies and clinics shuttered, with just one public hospital carrying the full outbreak burden. The poorer populace was abandoned to their fates out of mass terror over a microbe easily treated and prophylactically blocked with the world’s cheapest, mildest antibiotics.

From the first recognition of AIDS in 1981, I followed the expanding HIV pandemic all over the world, watching even more egregious nonscientific thinking and bigotry drive governments on every continent to institute policies against the human sufferers of the disease, rather than fund serious public health measures and basic research attacking the virus itself. When I march I’ll be thinking of the 18 million people who are kept alive each day by science and its discovery of effective anti-HIV drugs.

I’ll also be marching with heroes in my heart. Jonas Salk, a scientist who discovered the first polio vaccine and a generous and delightful human being. I’ll also be thinking of another polio-fighting hero I had the honor of meeting recently - Pakistani rock star Salman Ahmad, who inspires parents to vaccinate their children despite Taliban assassinations of more than 150 immunization workers.

I’ll be thinking of Dave Keeling, who in 1953 had the crazy idea that carbon dioxide levels were rising all over the planet due to the surge in automobile use and pushed for funds to create a remote, high-altitude measuring station to capture CO2. In March 1958, Keeling launched his measuring station atop Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano, recording a CO2 concentration of 313 parts per million (ppm). He tested and logged what is now the Keeling Curve, and the monitoring continues all over the world. On April 15, Mauna Loa CO2 topped 409 ppm. When plotted over an 800,000-year span, the past 70 years clearly represent the most dramatic surge in carbon dioxide in planetary history.

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