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Hungry for Jobs and for Change, Scientists Join the Occupy Movement

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Traffic backed up along Baltimore's inner harbor last week as protestors from the "Occupy" movement waved signs and shouted at the passing drivers. And among the protestors were scientists and science students, unhappy with their job prospects, their funding prospects, and the way science is viewed in America.

I had heard about the protests on the news, and hadn't paid too much attention. But as I drove by the crowd, a sign held by one of the protesters caught my eye:

"PhD \ne \!\, job."

That's a shorthand way of saying what has become all too familiar to us scientists: lengthy training and academic credentials no longer suffice to launch a career in science.

This message is a new tone in the Occupy movement's chord.

Brandie Cross held the sign. She is in the 5th year of a PhD program in biochemistry at The Johns Hopkins University. Her specialty is breast cancer, a traditionally well-funded specialty. But she's sure her job prospects are dim. "I'd like to start my own biotech company. I have tons of inventions, and I want to be funded by NIH. But there's no money."

I also spoke with Dr. Troy Rubin, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins who also showed up at the protest, and I heard a different angle; Rubin was more worried about the long-term future of America. I asked him why he was participating and he said, "We live in a society where wisdom is less appreciated than money. An economically driven society is fundamentally unsustainable."

The Occupy protestors view corporate greed and the disproportionate power of the wealthiest 1% of Americans as the causes of a wide range of problems in America. Since September, protests have sprung up in more than one hundred cities around the country. Baltimore is a small city with many institutions of research and higher learning, so perhaps it makes sense that Baltimore's version of the Occupy movement would involve scientists.

And scientists have certainly had much cause to protest during the last decade. With the sidelining of the American Competes act, the failure of Congress to pass climate change legislation, and the nationwide crisis afflicting science, technology and math (STEM) education, many of us are feeling helpless and angry, not just Cross and Rubin.

As an astrophysicist, I've watched funding sources in my field wither and my own students struggle to stay employed. Studies show that only half of U.S. adults can correctly answer the basic question: How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun? This statistic disheartens me. And the recently threatened closing of physics departments in Texas and Florida would not help the situation. I'm almost ready to protest too.

Even so, I was still surprised to see scientists engaged in the Occupy protest. We're generally a quiet bunch, more comfortable with armchair discussions than rabble rousing.

Of course, there are some potential reasons to shy away from joining the Occupy movement at this stage. Critics have called the movement disjointed, and lacking in focus. Indeed, at the Baltimore protest, I spotted signs addressing gay rights and hemp use right next to signs about big pharma and climate change. (The international climate campaign 350.org has urged its supporters to join the movement.) These may all be worthy causes, but one wonders how a single movement can effectively represent all of them.

Yet the protestors seem to view the movement's breadth as an asset, and perhaps scientists and other academics find the movement's open approach appealing. "Part of what drew me to the movement is that they were acknowledging that there are a lot of issues," said Jesse Crow. Crow is working on a Bachelors degree in Environmental Science and International Relations at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

There is more than one way to approach the current crises for science in America, and the best path forward remains unclear. But scientist participation in the Occupy movement shows that scientists have begun to embrace new techniques and join with new allies in an effort to influence public opinion and government policy. We have long been unhappy with the neglect of science in America and the effects of this neglect on American well-being. And now this growing movement has become a new outlet for our frustrations and a sign of our determination to overcome them.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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