Why I Will March for Science on Saturday
Posted on Apr 20, 2017
By Laurie Garrett / Foreign Policy
No matter how severely governments, including the Trump administration and GOP-led Congress, slash science budgets and deny research findings, empirical reality eventually wins. History proves that hypothesis.
Lysenko claimed there was no “evolution” in a Darwinian or Mendelian sense, but “adaptation.” He allegedly proved this by growing a plant in a refrigerated environment, claiming that after a few growth cycles the plant adapted to the snowlike conditions and thrived. With the same ridiculous logic, the Ukrainian-born nutcase assured Stalin that Siberia’s vast tundra could support wheat production; as the grain plants adapt to the cold climes, they would provide rich harvests for the proletariat. Instead, of course, massive famines greeted the Soviets, so severe that incidents of wholesale starvation and cannibalism were recorded throughout the mid-20th century.
Thanks to Peter Pringle’s terrific The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov, I will be thinking of the Russian geneticist who dared to denounce Lysenko as “the biggest fraud in biology” and paid for doing so with his life, starving to death in the still-notoriously brutal Saratov prison in 1943.
Our world is awash with dangerously stupid ideas, in rejection of evidence and serious science. Crackpots reign on the internet, of course. But worse, the very concept of expertise is under attack, Tom Nichols argues, risking that “eventually both democracy and expertise will be fatally corrupted, because neither democratic leaders nor their expert advisers want to tangle with an ignorant electorate.”
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Many marchers will have been galvanized by EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt’s comments. Asked how significant human factors, such as burning fossil fuels, were as causes of climate change, Pruitt opined, “I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do, and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact, so no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see,” prompting an immediate flurry of protests from top climate scientists.
For some protesters on Saturday it will be the White House’s immigration policies that brought them to the streets, limiting the free movement of graduate students, scientists, and physicians into the United States.
Some will raise their voices in anger that Trump is the first president since World War II to deliberately forgo appointing a White House science advisor heading the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Surely some of the marchers will share my outrage over the rising anti-vaccine movement in Europe, Australia, Canada, and the United States, emboldened by Trump’s appointment of vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to head a panel into the safety versus “uselessness” of child immunization. A few might have a fire in their bellies over the Republican-led congressional eight-month blockade of funding for Zika research and development, forcing both the NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to rob other disease programs in order to find resources to fight the new virus.
I have been disappointed by the decisions of prominent, financially comfortable senior scientists who doubt the dignity and utility of protest and decline to march. Perhaps comforted by their multiyear NIH funding or grants from private philanthropies, such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, these senior lab bosses can’t see it in their interests to rock boats and voice protest. But their junior scientists - undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, and untenured faculty - give voice to very different sentiments. Even before Trump called for a $6 billion, 18 percent slash of the NIH budget - the single-largest reduction in biomedical science since the NIH’s creation in 1948 - the future was grim for young researchers.
In recent years, on average, a quarter of NIH research grants have met with approval, but only 17 percent have received funds. Funding rates were even lower for African-American and Latino applicants. And for all categories of race and gender, the worst odds of gaining funding were for scientists under 45 years old. The average age for the first grant as an independent researcher rose from 38 in 1980 to 45 in 2013, and less than 3 percent of scientists under 36 were able to obtain principal investigator grants to run their own labs. More private and government money underwrites research run by scientists over 65 than by those under 40.
As the White House and Congress take their budget knives to government science funding at the CDC, NIH, EPA, and other agencies, we risk destroying the future of American scientific discovery, letting the laboratories of today gray into tomorrow, locking talented immigrants out of the country and denying support to two generations of junior researchers. If the odds of a 21st-century Albert Einstein or Marie Curie obtaining funding for his or her own laboratory before reaching the age of 36 were only 3 percent before Trump, what will they be by this time next year - zero?
So as a graying baby boomer, I shall march for the millennials who delight in analyzing DNA sequences, dream of studying cosmic rays from the space station, spend their summers measuring melting Arctic icebergs, test batteries of drugs in search of one that can pulverize HIV, climb inside dark caves to figure out what is killing the world’s bats, make antibodies that attack cancer cells, and study communication among elephants. On Saturday, I march for science, for Jonas Salk, Salman Ahmad, Dave Keeling, Nikolai Vavilov, and for the entire generation of millennial scientists.
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