Activism and the Academy


I am a member of a thing I call the Academy. It is a club, but without any roster, dues, or membership requirement – other than a preoccupation with science. It is non-exclusive, without judgment of any kind with respect to wealth, race, sex, creed, or place of origin. It owns no property, has no location, but it manifests itself continuously and repetitively in a thing called the scientific research conference. These meetings are something like the fruiting events of a slime mold, where thousands of fully separate and individual organisms (in this case humans, rather than amoeboids) come together and form a brief coalition with a specific goal, protocol, duration, and set of organizing principles.

The Academy convenes spontaneously whenever a topic within a discipline becomes of such current impact and importance that a critical mass of Academy members feels compelled to organize. In an ad hoc fashion, with funds begged and borrowed, a venue is located and a set of speakers selected and invited, and the Academy prepares to convene. While I have never witnessed a more tolerant and inclusive body, the Academy is still a meritocracy. No one travels thousands of miles to hear a bumbling fool who knows less than they do butcher a scientific subject. The speakers who are invited to present at a conference are typically and reliably the best in their field, irrespective of any other identifier. It’s like the NBA, only you substitute scientific mastery and communication for 3-pointer percentage and slam dunks. You go to a Cavs game to see Labron-caliber basketball, and you go to a Genomics meeting to hear Doudna-caliber science. Inclusion ratios are just an incidental finding.

Meetings of the Academy move forward under a strict but informal protocol that extends beyond the stipulation that you will not be invited to speak unless you are well established in your field and have clearly contributed novel discoveries to human knowledge. The academy will listen quietly and politely while you state your case and present your findings. They will openly challenge you and question you immediately thereafter but in an orderly fashion. Name calling and politics are considered gauche and are not tolerated, nor are personal, ad hominem, appeal to consensus, or all other manner of false reasoning attacks.

I value my membership in and the existence of the Academy more than any other single thing in my professional life. More than the diploma that I earned from the University of Michigan School of Medicine that hangs on my office wall; more than the small stack of peer reviewed, pre-printed articles with my name on them that I keep in my desk drawer. (Yes, I came of age in the time when articles were snail-mailed between colleagues because email had not yet been invented.) I value it because it just allowed me to be present last week in a beautiful setting in Lake Tahoe and to hear Robert Murphy from the University of Colorado describe the histologic visualization of brain tissue using laser desorption mass spec imaging of phospholipids.

From there, I flew to La Jolla where I learned from Dr. Razelle Kurzrock about precision cancer therapy and the genomic biopsy of breast cancer from human blood.

Kurzrock Presentation 1

I also listened to Carl Zimmer and Ed Yong, who like me are accepted and included in the Academy despite the fact that they have no new, original research to present when they arrive.

Yong 2

The Academy welcomes curiosity, a genuine interest in the truth, and a willingness to act as a conduit of that truth to the greater public. When I returned home, I added my participant’s badges from these meetings to a drawer containing literally hundreds of other icons of my past participation in a coming together of the members of the Academy in a civil and respectful fashion for the benefit of all of science. It is simply the best thing a civil society and a democracy can manifest, this utterly free and collegial exchange of knowledge and ideas, replete with remarks, retorts, and pointed questions that challenge the data, the models, and every other intellectual aspect of the topic up for discussion.

In spite of what I’ve just written, I absolutely dread what seems to be on the agenda for the next convention of the Academy, organized under the hashtag of #ScienceMarch. To begin with, there is something fundamentally wrong with the calling card for this convention. Conferences of scientists take place inauspiciously and quietly, in near seclusion, for a very good reason—because science is about thought, logic, and reason, and those activities tend to be degraded by noise, agitation, and political posturing. Rather than bringing together the best science has to offer, this conference seems to be dominated by those whose science is a bit dodgy. This convention has no coherent topic but seems to be simultaneously about dozens of purely political issues that science cannot un-complicate or reduce to some artificial policy-defined certainty.

The world does need to pay attention to scientists but not because we yell more loudly than some other special interest group—the world needs to value us because we invent things, correct things, and reveal past errors in our fundamental understanding. #ScienceMarch seems to be an immature, self-important shriek for attention. Scientists offer a way to a better tomorrow, as we have for centuries, bringing to humanity vaccines, antibiotics, computers, MRI scans, and millions of other clear advances in our well being. We inform the world when a species is suffering and in danger of disappearing from the earth as only those properly trained and practicing wildlife ecology are prepared and competent to do.

An argument has been put forward that this street protest is necessary, because those we have elected to political power do not properly respect us and our carefully accumulated evidence. This is an obvious reference to the Trump administration’s disdain for climate and immunization science. I have covered those two very different topics elsewhere, and they are important, but the hard truth is that simply by ignoring science, this administration has committed no crime. Nor have they discovered anything novel. Every president I can think of since Nixon, including Obama, viewed science cynically and manipulatively, to be supported, misquoted, and prostituted only when it helped their particular politics.

So how do I imagine the #ScienceMarch will go? In a word—badly. We are visually a very odd and identifiable group living in an age of unusual intolerance and bigotry. We have allowed a small clique of self-serving politically frenzied climatologists tarnish our scientific integrity with their outlandish claims of impending disaster and ecosystem collapse that never happens. This is the political faction who have been so rudely ejected from their positions of power by the election of Donald Trump, and this street protest seems primarily to be a knee jerk tantrum at this abrupt loss of status. Do scientists suppose that if we behave like a bunch of striking transit workers out to protect our cushy union jobs, we’re going to get more respect, not less? It seems more likely to me that those in power will notice how many of us seem to have gotten here on a VISA and will try to tighten that process beyond its current ridiculous restrictions. They will notice that we are well paid and generally live stimulating, comfortable lives and will lobby for cuts in government research spending, salaries, and graduate stipends. (Note the proposed $1.2 billion NIH budget cut.) In the worst case, there will be more violence against identifiable, highly-intelligent minority victims such as Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Kansas City.

It’s hard to deny that America is in a state of political turmoil. We have elected as president a stupid man who believes he is smart, and the reflections of his ignorance and mendacity are radiating out through the executive branch of our government. Truth, forever the domain and highest object of science, is in short supply in the age of alternative facts. It is not as if we have never had as president a dishonest, paranoid, and criminally inclined person, as we did with Richard Nixon. I remember well the night when Nixon fired Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor who was following his nose closer and closer to the White House as he investigated the Watergate break in. That was the night I took to the streets myself, not as a scientist with a lab coat on, demanding more attention for myself or my profession, but as an outraged student protester who was determined to end the corruption infecting the highest office in the land. The music of that earlier time was of the Byrds singing “To Everything There is a Season.” That night, it was time.

If this protest is really about impeaching the president, then let that legal process proceed according to the constitution. If Trump abrogates it in the manner that Nixon tried to do, then a protest march by all Americans may become justified.  America has a lot of special interest groups. Do we really need a new, political entity defined only by the generality of “We study things?” What we really need is the calm, measured, self-critical voice of real science. This is the science that lives in the Academy. I worry that it will suffer a gruesome death in the street protest environment.

I’m frankly very torn as to what to do on April 22. Many of my friends will be taking part in protests organized by #ScienceMarch. I may join them, for a time, strictly as a scientist, to observe what is happening and see whether we, as scientists, have any business out on the street.  I hope that what I will see is the Academy asserting its true principles, as I have tried to describe them so far. I hope that what I don’t see is that we are on the verge of abandoning them.



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