Soon after the Women’s March in Washington D.C. suggestions began to percolate that there be a Science March. The proposal makes sense, since many of the new administration's suggested policies are very relevant to scientists, the potential shutdown of the Environmental Protection Agency being perhaps just the most dramatic possibility. It is not unusual for scientists in the U.S. to keep an eye on the political winds. Many scientists rely on government funding to complete their work. Your tax dollars purchase an investment in research on cancer, Alzheimer's, and environmental pollution just to name a few.
As quickly as the idea of a march gained momentum, however, so, too did disagreement over the boundaries of the march. Was the focus to be primarily on climate change? Should federal funding levels for scientific agencies be discussed? Should the march address what might be seen as social or political issues, such as the lack of representation of women and minorities in many scientific fields or the recent focus on sexual harassment in scientific workplaces?
To some, these ideas were too broad and lacked focus on real scientific issues. There was a risk of going off message, they argued, by adding in politics or speaking towards social justice. Perhaps the Science March is simply not the right time or place for those discussions. To others the focus was too narrow, not inclusive enough. By sidelining issues that are important to many scientists, the March risked becoming inert. The discussions of where to focus the Science March mirror conversations about science in general. What do we include when discussing science? Is this an abstract philosophical discussion or a somewhat messy practical one?
Science does not exist simply as a platonic ideal. Science is a human endeavor that occurs within the context of human organizations. It is not simply experiments and statistical tests and cold facts. Science is inextricably mixed with our ideas about research ethics, ideas about which questions deserve to be asked, and how that knowledge is used. Whether these are framed as political or social issues, the conclusion is the same: science cannot be completely separate from life.
It does not take much effort to find recent examples. The bestseller and film The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks describes one such case. Henrietta’s cells were harvested without consent or recompense. Her family’s personal medical records were made public without their permission. The descendents of those cells are still used in labs around the world today to advance scientific knowledge. Would the same thing have happened if Henrietta were not a poor black woman? Or if one of the researchers had been?
More recently, drugs developed for heart disease were found, after a very long period of research and clinical testing to work well on men but not women. The drugs simply had never been tested on women because men were taken to be the default human. The decision to not ask how well the drug worked for women has been linked to the overwhelming over representation of men in biomedical research. If women were not woefully underrepresented, would their treatment still have been an afterthought?
These are the types of questions that are critical for the scientific enterprise and for any sort of Science March. Who gets to contribute to science? Who makes decisions for influential scientific organizations, in government and the private sector? It matters that we scientists make sure that not only a small sliver of the population, selected by race, gender, or social class, have real opportunities to contribute. Anything less is an waste of human potential. Any person interested in science as a human enterprise should be very concerned that we do not squander our collective potential through lack of effort to include all. That effort is, and always will be an integral part of science.