Down to Earth: Trump’s cuts to science are a knife to my heart

We tell stories to know who we are. Speaking our own stories, we rediscover ourselves. And by hearing and identifying with one another’s journeys, we discover and reach each other, too.

My world — my story — is one of science.

I birdwatch. I teach students how to write about science. As a graduate student, I studied geology — the science of the vast, beautiful, complicated earth — then applied it as an environmental consultant helping clean up contamination. I write, journalistically and creatively, about nature. I read poetry about science, nature, and medicine.

So the war on science being waged by the Trump administration — silencing government scientists, crimping budgets for agencies like NASA and the National Institutes of Health, seeking to slash the EPA — cuts me to the heart.

We hear a lot these days about the alt-right’s attempt to foster suspicion of science. People caricature scientists as cold-blooded individuals, arrogantly sure they’ve got all the facts, wanting first and foremost to prove themselves right.

But that picture couldn’t be further from the reality of the scientists I know. Most of them are passionate people. They love science for its beauty and surprise. They’re humble in the face of the vastness of knowledge.

And far from being overprivileged “elites,” they come from all backgrounds. Many have suffered and struggled to make it through their long, difficult training. Graduate students in the sciences are offered a tiny salary for their work in the lab and as teachers. Some who might instead have gone on to, say, law school, but didn’t have money to pay for it — like me, in fact — can continue in science.

It’s people like these who will take part in the March for Science happening in Washington, D.C., Boston, and other cities on April 22. And I’ll be alongside them, marching.

Some have worried that the march will “politicize” unbiased science. But with Harvard scientist and writer Naomi Oreskes, I believe that science can’t escape politics. Science becomes political when its findings challenge business as usual: when facts make us realize we must change the status quo.

“When scientists are attacked, it’s not because they crossed the line into policy. It’s because their scientific research exposed serious problems that cannot be solved by the private sector alone,” said Oreskes at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in February. “Not speaking in public will not necessarily protect you from being attacked.”

Oreskes encourages scientists to tell their stories — to speak their truth of who they are, what they know, and why they do what they do. It isn’t enough just to do science: scientists must love it, and show why they love it, and personally share why the work is important.

So here’s a little more of my story. It starts with my dad.

As a kid in Brazil, my dad was science-obsessed. When a teenager, he convinced his uncle to bring him chemicals so he could make them react in his bedroom. Once, he burned through his windowsill when a beaker of sulfuric acid bubbled over.

He came of age during the early computer revolution and was quick to realize its potential. His own father wanted him to become an electrical engineer. But my dad is nothing if not stubborn. He followed his dream, working for Sperry Univac, which took him to London and finally America. Now, having once worked on room-sized vacuum-tube computers, he writes software for cell phones.

All through my childhood, my dad did science with me. From business trips he brought home toy science kits that he and my sister and I opened together. I still remember the chemistry one. It was crammed with little tubes and colorful reagents and stirring rods and instructions. The impact was indelible. My sister today is an organic chemist and teaches at Hampshire College.

My dad taught me how to program a computer. He took me birdwatching on Audubon Society field trips. With him, the world was rich, full of natural surprises to discover.

But I was also passionate for stories, for novels and poems and comics. So I ended by studying geology — the earth’s story. I think of layers of rock like the pages of a book, storing the history of the earth, each layer like a leaf of paper telling a good yarn.

“When she grows up, Naila wants to be a scientist,” I wrote at age nine in an ‘author bio’ for a school project, “and she also hopes her stories are published someday.” I think I’ve come pretty close to that dream.

I know every scientist has tales like this to tell. Maybe it’s a story of frustration, failure, and final victory in the laboratory. Maybe it’s a story of travel, like food scientist Sam Nugen, formerly of UMass and now at Cornell. He talked eloquently with me about his work in rural Africa, where he brings simple but effective food safety technology to poor farmers, such as a quick test for bacteria in dairy milk.

Through such stories, people can connect to science on a personal basis. And here in the Pioneer Valley, we have no shortage of opportunities to exchange those tales.

Events called “Science Cafés,” for instance, “are cropping up around the country in an attempt to make science and scientists more accessible to the general public,” says the website of SciTech Café, a similar group in Northampton. SciTech Café features one scientist each month, who gives a public presentation at Union Station at 6 pm on the fourth Monday monthly.

About 100 people of all stripes show up each month, says Katherine Aidala, who is a physicist at Mount Holyoke College and organizes SciTech Café — grandmothers, children, scientists, students, ordinary citizens.

Another area Science Café, currently meeting at the Nacul Center in Amherst on the second Thursday of each month, is run by graduate students from the UMass Organismic and Evolutionary Biology (OEB) program. And then of course there’s Nerd Night, the wildly popular lecture series with beer, which happens monthly in Northampton or Easthampton.

Scientists who take part in these events are doing a brave and important thing, stepping away from their often painstaking and time-consuming scientific work to reach out to the general public. Others should consider doing the same.

And, too, scientists should reach out beyond their own immediate neighborhoods to underserved groups — for instance via community engagement offices often present at their institutions. Churches, community centers, rotary clubs all could offer platforms for scientists to meet with the public. Colleges and universities should reward such efforts as an important part of faculty service.

“Only 25 percent of the American public is highly motivated to reject science,” Oreskes said. “If we are willing to reach out and talk to people, many people are willing to listen.”

Non-scientists, meanwhile, can support the contributions of science to their lives by attending such events and spreading the word. They can join the March for Science, to send a message about the importance of the scientific process to political leaders and to society around us. They can send kids to science camps — some, like the Hitchcock Center summer nature program, offer financial aid — or subscribe them to magazines like National Geographic Kids or Muse.

In the face of attack, we must all reach out to one another to defend the science that everywhere helps make our lives better: from the aspirin you took last night for a headache, to food-safety measures that repel bacteria, to regulations that keep poisons out of drinking water, to the cell phone you hold in your hand that may contain software designed by my father, who taught me the poetry of knowing.

Naila Moreira is a writer and poet who often focuses on science, nature and the environment. She teaches science writing at Smith College and is the writer in residence at Forbes Library. She’s on Twitter @nailamoreira.

Naila Moreira

Author: Naila Moreira

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