Science March 2017

Along with many other Americans, I peacefully and legally took to the streets on Saturday, April 22 to make a public call for the support of science. Below is my planned speech, to be given in Springfield, MO.

I must start this by saying I am here as an individual. My words are my own. I represent no company, no government, and no sponsor. I am here speaking my mind, and my opinions.

I am here to speak my truth.

It’s Earth day. I have admit, this is a holiday that never stood out for me. My Freshman year of high school, my geometry teacher made us right papers for Earth day, and I remember resenting the assignment, and I don’t remember what I wrote on. I don’t think I really even noticed Earth Day again until 2009, when it was celebrated as part of the International Year of Astronomy, and the world was ask to turn of their lights off for a single hour on a single night so everyone might see the stars.

Earth Day, isn’t a day most people mark on their calendar. For the most part, this holiday has largely been ignored here in the US. It lacks the commercial tie-ins of candy and cards that make Valentines Day and Easter so popular. It’s missing the drinking and parades of Saint Patrick’s Day. No, Earth Day – this Day – is not a day of consumerism that the marketing machines can get behind and remind us of. Earth Day is a celebration of our planet, and the science that is used to study it and the conservation that is needed to help humanity and our ecosystem thrive.

In 1970, Denes Hayes founded Earth Day and encouraged peaceful protests to demand environmental reform.

Today, 47 years later, we’re here to recognize that understanding our world and its place in the universe requires not just Earth Science but all science. Earth Day has become our day – a day to March for Science and demand better of ourselves and of our world.

We demand that science be supported through excellent educational opportunities; and through sufficient federal funding that our scientists have the freedom to try to try new things, to experiment, and to not fear sometimes failing as they push forward our understanding of this universe we share; we demand open access to their results; and we demand that when scientific discoveries necessitate changes in human behavior, science-based policies and regulations get put in place and enforced. We demand this for all of society; for all peoples in all their diverse and wonderful forms.

Of Funding

I was born after Apollo. I started high school as the iron curtain fell. My youth, in a field dominated by the Apollo generation  scientists, gives me a disheartening perspective.  In my life, I have watched as our society has grown complacent about our so called leadership in science. After all, I hear from my seniors, we won the race to the moon, we are winning in the Nobel Prize count, the best of the brightest from around the world are all coming to the US to go to university. We are winning!

No. We were winning.

In 2016, none of the 7 science-related Nobel prizes went to an American.

In 2015, it was 1 in 8.

Since 2000, only 38 of the 130 science prizes went to US born scientists.

Since 2011, U.S. astronauts have travelled to and from space on Russian rockets because we lack our own human-certified spacecraft.

Students who come here for education are returning home, and American-born scientists, including Nobel Prize Winner Brian Schmitt, are leaving the US to seek better options else where.

There are reasons people are leaving.

It is getting harder and harder for scientists in the U.S. to get needed funding to do research. Grant funding rates at the National Institutes of Health have dropped from over 35% in 1978 to just 17%. At NASA we’re seeing just under 25% of grant submissions get funded. In my personal field, Astronomy, we’ve seen National Science Foundation funding rates fall from 35% to less than 15% just since 2000. What this means is that in my field, for every 6 grants submitted, maybe 1 will be funded. Every unfunded grant means students who won’t have jobs; professors who won’t have salary for the entire year; and early career researchers who won’t… well, do research or have a career. It means medical trials that won’t be done, satellites to monitor our planet that won’t be launched, and technology that will never be pioneered. Lack of funding, means lack of science.

We demand change. We demand the restoration of Federal funds for research in all scientific fields.

Of diversity

But it’s not just about America.

When Earth Day was founded, celebrations were held at two thousand colleges and universities, at around ten thousand  schools, and in hundreds of communities across this nation. Last year, celebrations had spread to 192 nations and included over a billion people.

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a global community to raise our understanding of science. Some breakthroughs require the unique mix of creativity, genius, and inspiration that might only be found in one person in a generation and we can’t know which village or city will produce that child.

We all know of a the young Jewish refugee who escaped Nazi Germany after his property was seized and his books were burned. His name was Einstein, and he gave us relativity – a field of science necessary for GPS and so much more. Some of you may even know of Chandrasakar, an astronomer whose theories let us understand that matter at high densities changes form, and that our most massive stars can collapse into moon and even Manhatten sized objects. He made this discovery while on a boat from his homeland of India to England, where he was going to attend graduate school. Let that sink in – Young Chandrasakar only had his undergraduate degree when he redefined the possible forms of matter.

Each of these men changed our understanding of the universe in a fundamental way. They changed our understanding of the shape of space, and the possible structures of reality. Neither man could fully succeed if they had stayed in their home nation. Einstein most likely would have been killed. Chandrasakar simply wouldn’t have had the same educational opportunities. It was because the global science community recognized their talents and found places for them to strive forward that they were able to thrive.

This nurturing isn’t available to everyone.

In reviewing the list of Nobel Prize winning scientists, I found that since 2000 only 6 women, and no blacks or hispanics had won. There was one fellow from India, and several Palestinians, but largely it was a list of white and asian men. This lack of diversity at the highest levels is mirrored throughout our fields. For instance, we saw less than 500 blacks receive PhDs in Physics between 1972 and 2012. These individuals represented less than 2% of all Physics PhDs. Women – they made up just 10% of degrees. Black women… there were only 36 in a field of nearly 25,000.

What great discoveries never happened because the wrong little girl was encouraged to take advanced placement English instead of the math she loved? What medical breakthrough was missed because the black child was told maybe they should focus on sports? What have we as a society lost because science, this thing that allows us to advance, has walls around it that are just too hard to cross for too many.

Science – the methods by which we understand our reality, and the means by which we develop medicine and technology – science needs to be welcoming to people of all nations, all races, and all genders.

Of truth

We are here, on this the 47th Earth Day, to demand that science be recognized as necessary for understanding our reality, to acknowledge that while scientists may sometimes falter, science is a means of getting at the truth – the truth of where did we come from, how did life evolve on this Earth, and how will it all someday end? Science is our only hope if we want to stop climate change, if we want to head off the spread of anti-biotic resistant diseases, and if we want to simply find ways to produce enough food that hunger stops being a concern.

Of education

For science to advance, we need scientists. We must train our children in the ways of science. They must be given the chance to learn to reason and to use observations to understand their world, and to learn for themselves the theories that explain why apples fall, and why the Moon orbits, and how that is really just one theory called gravity. They must become problem solvers who aren’t told to stop asking questions, but who are instead told to always question, and always explore.

Our education system is far from perfect, and with education we must do more then supply books and labs with technology. We must also work to overcome biases in the system, and actively welcome children of all backgrounds into our classes. It is not enough to say all are welcome. We must actually make the environment welcoming.

In mid-March, a group of 5 minority students – 2 African American and 3 latino – won their regional FIRST Robotics competition. During the competition, they didn’t just have to demonstrate engineering excellence, they also had to overcome parents and students from competing teams saying they needed to go back to Mexico. These were elementary kids – just 9 and 10 years old – and they were being trained by society that instead of building the best robots they could in the nation with some of the worlds best robotics programs – they … they were told to go back to Mexico. They were told to go back to a country that they didn’t even know.

This must change. Science needs all of society, and we must actively welcome diversity, and squash hate. All races, all genders and orientations, all kinds – able bodied and not, religious and not – all are needed and it is through our diversity of perspectives, inspirations, and genius that we will advance science. Intolerance will not be accepted. Our biases will be acknowledged. We will work to do better, to actively be better, and to keep improving our fields until our scientists reflect the society they are advancing.

Of open access

You are here, because you want to see those advances.

And for you to see the science, we must do our research in the open. I am proud to have spent much of my career working with NASA, and being not just able to, but required to share my results freely and as widely as possible. We are here because we demand that the work being done with Federal funds be made fully available to all. Researchers should not be asked to hide their results behind firewalls, and they should not see their discoveries censored because they might be bad for someone’s political agenda. Forecasts for rising sea levels don’t care which candidate you voted for. My lungs demand clean air to breath. My lips demand clean water to drink. I demand data to be released so that we can make informed decisions as voters, as consumers, and as compassionate human beings.

Of Policy

We demand open access to data and research results, but that alone is not enough.

With understanding comes responsibility. We demand that our government base policies and regulations on our best scientific understanding.

On this day in 2016, the Paris Agreement was signed by 194 UN member states. This international document calls for a decrease in the emission of greenhouse gases, and works towards finding ways to combat climate change and to mitigate the devastating effects of sea rise and changes in rain patterns. This is not the first time the many nations of the globe have worked together to save our planet.

In 1987, the Montreal Agreement declared that chemicals responsible for depleting the ozone layer would be phased out. Ratified by 197 nations, this agreement forced us to change the chemicals we use in our air conditioners and refrigerators. It forced us to change hair sprays from aerosol to pump. It changed a lot of consumer products. It also has allowed the Earth’s ozone layer to slowly recover. What it didn’t do was collapse the global economy.

From the Montreal Agreement we learned that saving the Earth is possible if we work globally and enforce policies and regulations that are meaningful and data driven.

Today, there is concern that the United States will set aside the Paris Agreement, and set aside our commitments to the environment. These are not data driven decisions.

Today, we demand our government enact and enforce science driven policies and regulations that protect us, and protect our lands for generations to come. This is right for the economy, and it is right for humanity.

Closing

Science is right for humanity.

Science is a human endeavor. We will fail. We will make mistakes. We will go down rabbit holes that lead no where.

But we will also make extraordinary discoveries.

But only if we are enabled to do science.

Science takes education.

Science takes funding.

Science takes people.

Science takes all of us, working together to demand that our elected leaders fund science education, fund science research, make all federally funded research open to all, and make federal policies that are informed by that research.

We are science. Our voices together can change science, change society, and even change this world.

We are the global community that will raise our understanding of the universe.

We will not be silenced.

We will let science ring.

Thank you.

2 Comments

  1. Bill Gawne April 23, 2017 at 9:27 pm #

    Thank you.

  2. StrangeQuark May 25, 2017 at 12:59 am #

    <3 thank you. You're a hero of mine. Been following you quietly (not in a creepy way!) for many years on astronomy cast, your blog, etc, and you and others in the scientific community have been an inspiration to me. Keep up the great work helping others see how epic and awesome and important science (and funding) is! As mother to a small child, I can't wait to get her excited about science and learning beyond the curriculum and making fools of her teachers like I did in school. 🙂

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