Not just a moment

Right now, many scientists feel ignored by the powerful. The only solution is to fully integrate science into the fabric of society.

Illustration by  Sarah Nagorcka

Illustration by Sarah Nagorcka

This is an editorial for Issue 22 of Lateral by editor-in-chief Jack Scanlan, who didn't go to the Science March in Melbourne because he was busy in the lab — how ironic, hey?

People don’t just march in the streets for nothing, particularly not scientists, a group not usually known for their political organising skills. But last month, researchers all around the world turned out in large numbers as a part of the Science March, an online-centred movement created to demonstrate (quite literally) how fed up the scientific community had become with the way society was treating it. “Politicians routinely ignore science, and we’re not going to take it anymore” was a dominating sentiment; “the world ignores science at its peril” was another.

For those with personal or professional ties to the field, such an outpouring of support for science’s importance no doubt felt cathartic. Scientists clearly do get ignored in many countries and contexts, and a lot of these researchers see themselves as ‘crisis detectors,’ using models and data to spot problems in society or the environment before anyone else can — the obvious example being climate scientists. Dismissing the concerns of such scientists should be the sign of a dysfunctional society (and is a well-worn cliche in disaster movies).

Politicians ignore science when it suits them because they believe there will be few, if any, political consequences. Australia’s Coalition government routinely brushes over reports about the declining health of the Great Barrier Reef, including the addressable causes, and many leading governments still have a hostile relationship to meaningful action on climate change. Most will acknowledge science is broadly useful — just look at the Australian government’s recent rhetoric around “innovation” — but will inadequately fund the basic research that sustains it. And when scientific data conflict with moneyed interests, nearly all are willing to turn a blind eye in the absence of incredible public backlash.

This all makes sense, in a sad kind of way. Science, perceived as complicated, inaccessible and arcane, is easy to ignore. Stereotypes of scientists also don’t help — we are seen as lab-bound, white coat-wearing obsessives, focusing only on their pet area without consideration for the larger impact of their work. If they were replaced with sufficiently advanced computers, one might think, could anyone really tell the difference? Scientists can be dismissed because they seem disconnected to the rest of society, shut away in their ivory tower institutes. They’re not getting upset, they’re not running for office, they’re not marching in the street — until they are, of course.

Scientists are people like everyone else and are more often than not aware of the broader context in which their work sits. It’s not uncommon for concern for a particular area to motivate a researcher’s focus — a zoologist may have started out worried about endangered species, a chemist may have wanted to discover solutions to energy storage issues, and a biomedical researcher may want to cure Alzheimer’s disease because it affects their family. This passion spills out into other areas of their lives, and it makes sense why they’d get angry enough to march.

But here’s the thing: many of the scientific community’s problems are shared with the wider society, at least in countries like Australia, the UK and the US. The insular nature of the modern political process, wherein the average voter feels disconnected from political decision-making, has been fostering disillusionment with the governmental system as a whole for a while now. It’s no wonder “outsider” figures like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen (and in a different way, Bernie Sanders) have been more popular than many predicted in recent electoral races, and 2016’s Brexit vote took the UK by surprise. In Australia, anti-establishment politics has yet to break into the mainstream, but the two major parties are keeping a wary eye on the nationalistic One Nation, fearing an upset down the road. Many people feel ignored by the powerful. Scientists are not alone in this.

This is not to lump concerned scientists in with the recent and disturbing wave of xenophobic nationalism. But there’s a sense of change in the air that’s getting harder to ignore. For politics in general, the big challenge is to redirect this anti-establishment energy into changing the way politicians view and relate to the general population, without acceding to racism or nativism. For scientists, a similar challenge exists: changing the way the general population views and relates to the process of and community around science. It’s fair to wonder if the two challenges could be addressed together.

Science has had a lot of visibility recently on the backs of popular YouTube channels, podcasts, TV shows and public figures that spread enthusiasm for the topic. But there’s a difference between people liking science and thinking it’s cool, and understanding its importance to the modern world and how it links up with every facet of human society, from medicine to global environmental crises. Scientists aren’t hiding away in their labs, they’re part of every community — and people need to know that. The average person has to feel invested in science, and to feel that science is invested in them. And as politics hopefully becomes more open, public-driven and community-focused in the coming years, science’s standing should rise and the concerns of scientists should be taken far more seriously. That's worth marching for.

Last month’s Science March might not have really changed anything yet — and that’s fine. But the real challenge for the scientific community is ahead. And we can’t do it without the public on our side.

For more on the current state of things, in more ways than one, check out the rest of Issue 22

By Jack Scanlan

Jack is the Editor-in-Chief of Lateral.