Editor's note: This essay first appeared on June 30, 2017
On July 4th, we celebrate the decision to rid ourselves of King George and replace him with a radical new system based on the consent of the governed. The Founders knew that science was an integral part of the American experiment. As James Madison put it:
A people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
But this Independence Day comes at a time when science has been sidelined in the US, threatened by steep proposed budget cuts, skepticism, and denial on all sides of the political spectrum. Can science thrive in today’s America? World leaders think not—and openly seek to poach our best research talent.
So as women scientists, we’d like to state for the record: we’re not going anywhere. There is much about today’s America that the Founding Fathers would not recognize: interstate highways, Twitter, loud women with opinions who vote. But their belief in an informed citizenry has persisted, and together we’ve built a scientific infrastructure that is the envy of the world. Science has helped Americans claim their rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. And we think that’s something worth defending. In fact, doing science isn’t just useful and interesting—it’s our patriotic duty.
Because, despite what some may say, scientific values are American values. Free speech and a free press allow us to speak truth even when it’s inconvenient to those in power, and to loudly disagree with each other in public. Science proceeds by the consensus of the many and is skeptical of unearned authority. And despite what some senior professors may believe, peer review tolerates no kings. What could be more American than that?
We are proud of this country’s tradition of welcoming refugees, migrants, and the “huddled masses,” a tradition in large part responsible for our global scientific clout. Scientific truth knows no national borders, and this means a country that welcomes and supports immigrants stands to benefit from their contributions. Science thrives in the American melting pot—every single American Nobel Laureate this year was an immigrant.
American support for science is intertwined with American history. Our agencies are almost as old as our country: NOAA can trace its roots back to the Coast Survey formed in 1807 under Thomas Jefferson, and the NIH evolved from the eighteenth-century Marine Hospital Service. The National Science Foundation was founded in the wake of the Second World War to strengthen the peacetime economy and national security; it has succeeded spectacularly on both counts.
Federal funding to universities and colleges has supported groundbreaking basic research, supported over one hundred Nobel laureates, and provided educational opportunities to students who might have never found their way to science. The agencies have long enjoyed bipartisan support—even staunch conservative Nixon saw fit to establish the EPA in his first (less scandalous) term in office.
The things that have made American science great—our freedom to speak, assemble, and publish, the welcome we extend to immigrants and refugees, our support for education and research—are now under threat. We fear that science is being sidelined or ignored at federal agencies—especially when that science inconveniences dark-moneyed titans of finance and industry. And cuts to basic research may thwart our ability to chart the unknown with big, bold questions that lead to revolutionary technologies, from the convenience of our smartphones to the promise of CRISPR. Points of scientific consensus—climate change, evolution, vaccines—are meeting resistance in the educational system. Hateful xenophobic rhetoric and the Muslim travel ban are already hurting the country’s ability to attract the world’s best and brightest. Meanwhile, we squander our best home-grown talent through racism, brutality, and neglect.
These are worrying trends, but we’re not ready to give up. So thanks to the world leaders inviting us to move abroad—but we're going to continue the fight for science in the U.S.
We are under no illusion that science is somehow above criticism. In fact, we understand well that, much like America, science inevitably fails to live up to its lofty principles. Science in the service of power has enabled atrocities from eugenics to the nuclear bomb. And we scientists frequently fail our own—sidelining and even silencing scientists from marginalized communities. But the solution is to fight for these principles, not to abandon them. This country’s bumpy journey to a more perfect union has expanded opportunities to more of its citizens: as women scientists, we’re proof of this progress. We refuse to cede the language of optimism, pride, and hope to the forces of fear and exclusion.
We understand the power of the forces currently arrayed against science. We know we have a fight on our hands. But we would do well to remember the words of another Founder, Abigail Adams:
If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation.
So, while we’re grateful for invitations to move abroad, we’re staying right here. As scientists, as women, as proud citizens, immigrants, and visitors, we’re going to fight for science in this country. It’s the patriotic thing to do.