15 February 2017

The civic duties of scientists

Yangyang Cheng

Yangyang Cheng

Yangyang Cheng is a postdoctoral research associate at Cornell University’s Cornell Laboratory for Accelerator-based ScienceS and Education (CLASSE), and a member of the CMS experiment at the...


“Why are there so few scientists in Congress?”

It was at a workshop dinner. Between bites of delicious Chinese food, I posed this question to a senior colleague of mine, seated next to me.

He put down his chopsticks, stared at me for a second, and said, “Are you seriously asking me this question?”


“I think it takes a very different kind of person to become a scientist, as opposed to those who become politicians.”

The workshop was held at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, just outside Chicago. Its neighboring congressional district, Illinois’ 11th, is represented by the sole PhD-level scientist in the United States Congress: Representative Bill Foster, a particle physicist who spent the first few decades of his career at Fermilab.

I too am a particle physicist, but for as long as I can remember, I have also loved politics and public policy. The questions of how to achieve more effective governance, and how to form a more perfect union, have intrigued me as much as the mysteries of how stars move and subatomic particles interact. Pursuing my interest in politics alongside my career in physics, I’ve often found myself the lone scientist in the room, scrambling for answers to the question “Physics and politics? That’s SO DIFFERENT!”

Why are scientists often disengaged? Perhaps I gave my nice colleague at the dinner table a particularly hard time, by focusing my question on scientists at one extreme of the public engagement spectrum—those who seek elected office. What has me wondering and honestly disappointed from time to time, though, is a more general lack of interest in the public discourse from the scientific community.

Early last year, I was chatting with another colleague of mine at Cornell University. The primary election in the state where we work and reside was coming up, so I asked him for his views on the candidates.

“I do not vote,” he said. “I have never voted. Should I vote?” Seeing the surprise and dismay on my face, he suggested, “Tell me whichever candidate you think I should vote for, and I will vote for that person.”

Maybe it was one of those days when I did not have enough patience. Or maybe this is one of those things that I do not have patience for. But on that day at that moment, I raised my voice to my kind and generous colleague, and said, “People who come from where I did, people who look like me, have marched and died to have the right to vote. As a white man born in America, you do not vote because you can afford not to.”

The faces in the upper echelons of US legislative bodies still resemble the stereotypical faces of science: by and large of a particular hue, of a particular gender, of a particular socioeconomic class. Many scientists do not feel a personal stake in the political process, because the outcomes of political processes have rarely negatively impacted their lives.

I too often seek sanctuary of the mind in the simple elegance of physics, but the pursuit of science alone does not shield a scientist from the injustices of the world. To the contrary, the injustices of the world have often stood in the way of scientific inquiry. When scientists feel they are above politics, they are lifted not by their profession, but by their privileges: privileges not shared by their colleagues from marginalized groups, and privileges not shared by members of marginalized groups who have never had the resources or the access, and hence never saw the gateways to science open to them.

Defending science. When science becomes a luxury, we all become a little poorer. When science becomes the elite pursuit of the privileged few, it becomes vulnerable to anti-science, counterfactual sentiments riding on the back of populism. In the current political climate—when elected officials up to the highest offices of the land challenge the necessity of basic research, the core of scientific integrity, and the fundamental meaning of truth—scientists cannot remain silent. The rising tide of misinformation and illiberalism is encroaching on the foundations of society, and threatening to engulf the ivory towers.

When scientists engage in the public dialogue, it does not mean that science is being politicized. Nature has no political ideology, nor should the interpretation of nature. It is up to scientists to defend and advocate for the integrity and independence of science. When politicians and special interests oppose scientific inquiry, or skew scientific findings to fit a political agenda, scientists who stand on the sidelines only enable further politicization of science. When the very definition of who we are, and what we do, becomes polarized and weaponized in political battles, we as scientists cannot retreat in unilateral disarmament. We must put ourselves on the front lines because this is our fight.

In this fight, the scientific community must stand united in mutual respect of diverse scientific disciplines. In harsh budgetary situations, we must resist the temptation of short-term self-interest at the cost of a sustainable, encouraging climate for all fields of science. As scientists become more engaged in advocating for support of our own disciplines, we must also stay vigilant: Whether it comes in the form of climate denial or anti-vaccination or creationism in schools, an attack on any branch of science is a threat to all scientists, and countering it requires our collective voice. No single scientific quest stands as the crown jewel, as science does not hail a singular king, but lifts all of humankind.

Democratizing science. Science should be a unifier, like the forces of the nucleus and gravity that bind us together. Science should be an equalizer, as all entities on this planet and beyond abide by the same rules of nature. For science to survive and thrive despite the current political headwinds, it must become more democratic. To be depoliticized, science must be demystified. How? By supporting marginalized members within the scientific community, broadening access to education and careers in science to include truly diverse groups of society, and, more fundamentally, raising science literacy within the general population.

I recall countless everyday encounters when someone casually remarks, “I cannot do math.” I do not recall a single instance when someone says with as much nonchalance, “I cannot read.” Not everyone becomes a writer, but an informed citizenry must have a basic grasp of the language. Not everyone becomes a lawyer, but an informed citizenry must have a basic awareness of the law. Not everyone becomes a scientist, but an informed citizenry must have a basic understanding of science and its tools and language—including math, experimentation, and critical thinking. As Voltaire famously put it, “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” An informed citizenry, capable of telling truth from lies, and facts from opinion, is the best defense against tyranny.

Defending liberal democracy. For scientists, it is part of our professional responsibility to defend and advocate for science. It is also our civic duty to defend and advocate for liberal democracy. Freedom, equality, and a common set of rules: the ideals of liberal democracy reflect the laws of the universe, and the pursuit of such ideals echoes those of scientific inquiry. When faced with the unknown, scientists embrace it with curiosity, instead of rejecting it with fear. When confronted with diversity, scientists look for commonalities and patterns, instead of getting lost amid the differences. When limited by the scope of time and space, scientists find ways to expand our reach and connections, instead of staying confined within our immediate existence. When in possession of knowledge or power, we retain empathy and humility in awareness of our vast ignorance, instead of falling for the temptations of abuse.

Science and democracy have been linked throughout history. The most brilliant minds in ancient Greece pondered the building blocks of matter as well as the formation of a republic. Knowledge of the rotation of planets in the sky, and the flow of blood in the human body, did not perish in fiery executions by the state, but shone a light through the dark ages of Europe. Ben Franklin captured lightning with a key and a kite, the roaring thunder echoing the battle drums of the American Revolution. Chinese students awakening from millennia of imperial rule flew the banner of “Mr. Science” alongside “Mr. Democracy” in the May Fourth Movement of 1919. Albert Einstein wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1941, seeking asylum for Jewish refugees , and became instrumental in the founding of what became the International Rescue Committee. Nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov fought tirelessly in the face of persecution, for civil liberties and democratic reform in the former Soviet Union. Astrophysicist Fang Lizhi, the former vice president of my undergraduate alma mater in China, carried the scars from the Cultural Revolution but continued to lead pro-democracy student movements through the 1980s, raising his pen against the tanks at Tiananmen Square. Boris Nemtsov left his career as a nuclear physicist in the late 1980s to emerge as one of the most important voices for a democratic Russia, until an assassin’s bullets stopped him on a Moscow bridge in the shadows of the Kremlin in 2015.

The quest for freedom against oppression has always had its champions in science. It is only within liberal democracies that science can truly blossom.

A model for progress. As a particle physicist, I work on the Large Hadron Collider located at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Founded in 1954 with 12 member states from a Europe emerging from the ashes of two World Wars, CERN now has 22 member states, six associate member states, several observer states and organizations including the United States and Russia, and cooperation agreements with dozens more countries spanning every continent of the globe. When Ukraine formally joined CERN as one of its latest associate members in October 2016, its ambassador remarked that the occasion was an important step in Ukraine’s European integration.

When female scientists leave countries where women cannot drive or leave the house without male companions, to work on the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, what is moving forward is not only science but also society. At a time when the European project is in crisis, and globalization is in doubt, CERN stands on the frontiers of not only science and technology, but international collaboration: a shining example of how nations and institutions, communities and individuals, can overcome historical conflicts and current divisions to form a joint human endeavor, and to seek answers to some of the most profound questions and biggest challenges.

For the sustainable advancement of science, for the preservation and promotion of liberal democracy, and for meeting the urgent challenges of today when law and policy lag behind science and technology, scientists must be active in the political discourse.

Stay informed. Bear witness. Remain vigilant. Listen. Read. Think. Speak up. Volunteer. Advise. Donate. Organize. Call your representative. Run for office. As promising signs emerge across the country, with more scientists planning to seek elected office, all scientists must serve in the most important office of the land, that of the citizen. As President Barack Obama said in his farewell address to the nation, “Show up. Dive in. Stay at it.” Never look away. Never be silent. Never stop fighting. As scientists we must fight for truth, freedom, and justice, not only because our livelihoods depend on it, but also as if our lives depend on it.