December 20, 2018

What does it mean for Science to “stand for” something? 

Posted by bwebster

Today’s post is part of a series written by student bloggers from the AGU Fall Meeting 2018.
By: Hannah Mark, MIT-WHOI Joint Program on Marine Geology and Geophysics

At this year’s AGU Fall Meeting, I spent a good bit of time walking back and forth between posters and talks along the corridor on the lower level of the Walter Washington Convention Center. Every trip took me past a giant screen playing a highlight reel of AGU-related content, including a video montage of scientists reflecting on the theme of this year’s meeting, “What Science Stands For.” According to the folks on the screen, science stands for a broad range of concepts and values, from curiosity and questions to solidarity and survival. After hearing those sound-bites many times over, I started to wonder: what does it actually mean for capital-S-Science to “stand for” something?

Photo Credit: Jackie Caplan-Auerbach (@geophysichick)

I attended two sessions at Fall Meeting that explored this question from different angles. In the first session, Fostering International Science in a Time of Nationalism, a panel of scientists, lawyers, and journalists discussed both the dangers that nationalism poses to science, and ways that we can preserve and promote international science. The panelists presented both moral and utilitarian arguments for international science. When nationalist governments target scientists because they present evidence that counters a government narrative, there is a moral good in scientists speaking up for their human rights and the integrity of their work, and scientists also benefit more broadly from the free exchange of ideas across national borders. Jessica Wyndham from AAAS emphasized that when scientists enjoy the benefits of scientific freedom, they take on a certain amount of responsibility to promote that freedom globally.

The second session, a workshop on Advancing Equity Through Community Science, offered by AGU’s Thriving Earth Exchange (TEX), focused on tools to help scientists work with their communities. In the workshop, TEX Director Raj Pandya noted that scientists have privilege and power that they are morally obligated to use for the benefit of all people. Moral arguments aside, he also pointed out that diversity in the scientific community improves the work we do by bringing in a broader range of perspectives and ideas.

Standing for internationalism, then, means scientists speaking out, communicating science to the broadest possible audience, and making the effort to build global collaborations. Standing for equity means listening to our communities, and working with them to develop and answer scientific questions that are informed by the history, geography, and unique challenges of a given place and group of people. Geographic scale aside, there are some common themes here: science that stands for equity and internationalism is science that uses clear communication to promote the free exchange of ideas, and actively builds broad collaborations both locally and globally.

The two sessions mapped out a set of values, and some actions that both scientists and scientific societies can take to promote them. But I think it’s important to ask: should science “stand for” anything at all? These days, the idea of “standing for” something can be quite charged. In the wake of the 2017 March for Science, in particular, I’ve heard arguments that scientists need to stay above the fray, and that science should serve as some kind of conduit for truth without getting involved in the messy business of “standing for” things. These arguments seem to stem from a fear that involvement will compromise scientists’ public image as trustworthy experts.

This kind of fear is not unreasonable, but if we refuse to stand for anything at all, we risk letting others define what science stands for in potentially inaccurate ways. I think that another panelist, Dr. Kaveh Madani of Imperial College London, made a useful distinction when he drew a line between promoting internationalism and making political statements: we can do the former while still avoiding the latter. Science doesn’t need to be monolithic; we don’t need to stake out positions on specific issues as a collective. We only need to recognize that equity, inclusion, internationalism, and collaboration benefit science and scientists, and that in standing for these things, science is standing up for itself.