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Young Scientists Push into Political Realm

Speakers at the Stand Up For Science Rally in Boston's Copley Square.
Heather Goldstone
Speakers at the Stand Up For Science Rally in Boston's Copley Square.

For decades, scientists have shunned direct involvement in politics. They’ve testified before Congress and provided scientific information to policymakers, of course. But most have avoided weighing in on specific policy moves out of concern that such opining could damage scientists' credibility as the source of objective, factual information. In the wake of the 2016 election, that seems to be changing.

More scientists - particularly younger researchers - are now jumping into the public discourse in new and controversial ways. A prime example is Sunday’s Stand Up For Science rally in Boston.  Scientists dressed in white lab coats stood on a dias, holding signs and sharing messages of climate action, environmental justice, and multicultural inclusion. It was a display of political involvement that is new to the science community, and which highlights deep divides among scientists about their role in democracy.

Geoffrey Supran and Maryam Zaringhalam were both speakers at the event. Both are postdoctoral researchers at highly respected institutions. And both say scientists can't afford to stay silent on the social and political issues of the day. But their approaches to political involvement are distinct.

Zaringhalam is a postdoctoral researcher at Rockefeller University, and host of the Science Soapbox podcast. Shortly after the election, she got involved with the 500 Women Scientists initiative to foster diversity and public engagement within science. And now, she's speaking out about President Trump's stances on immigration.

For Zaringhalam, it's a personal issue. She is first generation Iranian-American. Her parents - a doctor and an engineer - emigrated from Iran and are now citizens. Likewise, much of her extended family are now American citizens pursuing careers in science or technology. It's something she says she has a hard time imagining happening in today's political climate. 

So, she's speaking out. She says that her activism as a private citizen shouldn't affect her science, or her standing as a scientist.

For Supran, his science and advocacy are intimately linked. Supran says he's been interested in renewable energy since he was a teenager. As an undergraduate, he led the student movement for fossil fuel divestment at MIT. As a graduate student, he studied material science with an eye to creating better LEDs and solar panels. Now, as a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University, and also at the Institute for Data, Systems and Society at MIT, Supran is looking more directly at the role of science in society.

Supran rejects the idea that political involvement by scientists is a new phenomenon. At Sunday's rally, he quoted Albert Einstein (who fled Nazi Germany in 1932): “Those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act.”

That is a sentiment being embraced by more and more scientists. Hundreds of thousands have expressed interest in a March for Science planned for Earth Day, April 22nd. While many still object to the "politicization of science," it seems unavoidable at this point.