When I’m at a conference, I usually attend panels to hear about the latest research in my field. I catch up with colleagues between scheduled sessions, and grab free pens from the exhibit booths. But the February annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston was a little different. Along with thousands of other researchers, I left the confines of the conference convention center. We walked a few blocks down Boylston Street to gather at Copley Square, carrying signs with slogans in support of science. “This is the nerdiest crowd I’ve ever seen!” called out one of the speakers. As I scanned the rally, I had to agree.
What compelled so many nerds to take to the streets? Skepticism about science, or even outright hostility, is not a new phenomenon. From attacking climate scientists to promoting creationism in public schools, American politicians have opposed scientific findings for years.
But today’s anti-science rhetoric, emanating from the highest levels of the US government, is especially chilling. As a public health researcher, I saw troubling signs across the political spectrum throughout the 2016 presidential election season. Green Party nominee Jill Stein, Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson, and Republican Party nominee Donald Trump all used their political platforms to express anti-vaccine views. And now, the presence of anti-science rhetoric in the White House has further energized vaccine skepticism at the state and local levels.
Sign of the times. Given this trend, and my public health background, it seemed only natural to choose a vaccine-related slogan for my sign. The decline in vaccine-preventable diseases and deaths is one of the greatest public health achievements of the past century in the United States. Many people made this possible: the scientists who developed the vaccines, the politicians who implemented science-based policies to make those vaccines accessible, and the millions of people who made the effort to vaccinate themselves and their children.
As a result, I have no personal experience of smallpox or polio. I’ve only ever seen mumps and measles in books. In gratitude, I grabbed a sharpie and wrote: “Remember polio? I don’t! Vaccines + science-based policies save lives.”
I had no idea how much the sign would resonate, both in person and on social media. At the rally, journalists, advocates, and curious passers-by continuously approached me with questions and supportive comments. In particular, many older people told me “You may not, but I remember polio!” They shared their personal experiences of polio vaccination, or memories of friends, classmates, and neighbors who had been stricken by the disease. Meanwhile, a photo of my sign was shared more than 17,000 times on Facebook and 7,000 times on Twitter.
Lessons for advocacy. I left the rally gratified and overwhelmed by the response. Soon, my research instincts kicked in. I immediately began to wonder what I might be able to learn from my experience, and what it might suggest for science advocacy in the future. Focusing on my field of public health, I had four main thoughts. I’m eager to learn what others, coming from different fields and perspectives, might think. Here are my takeaways:
1) Experts should make sure to address the many ways that scientific issues directly affect people’s lives. In this case, many older Americans either personally experienced polio, or remember the fears surrounding the disease before the vaccine was developed. This helps bring science “close to home.”
We can’t simply depend on science to speak for itself, because, on its own, scientific research can often seem remote, confusing, or irrelevant. But when we talk about the relationship between science and people’s daily lives, and encourage people to tell their own stories about how science affected them, we can involve the broader public in talking about the importance of science to society.
2) Advocating for science goes beyond partisanship. There is no question that the Republican Party in the United States, which today controls the presidency and both houses of Congress, has been the source of enormous opposition to science-based information and policies. The politicians in power are the politicians who are most important to hold to account.
But advocates for science must also address anti-science rhetoric wherever it appears. Anti-vaccine fears are an excellent example, because they run across the political spectrum. Misinformation has many sources, and science needs support from people of all political persuasions.
3) Supporters of science should proudly celebrate scientific victories. In my field of public health, success is usually invisible. When public health does its job, epidemics don’t spread, drinking water does not become contaminated, and people remain healthy and go about their day.
The only downside is that people might not be aware of these victories, or they might begin to take them for granted. For example, young Americans have no experience of polio, and fortunately most Americans have no experience of mumps or measles. In this context, it is much easier for vaccine-related misinformation to take hold.
4) Scientists must also acknowledge scientific failures and abuses. In public health, there are many horrific examples. The Tuskegee syphilis study, in which researchers misled black research participants and did not properly treat them, is one of the most infamous. Abuses and exclusion hurt vulnerable people, foster distrust of science, and continue to hinder scientific efforts to make the world a better place.
Advocating for science must involve reckoning with where science has fallen short. People in marginalized communities have been most greatly harmed by these failures. Their perspectives are crucial to pushing for a more just and more effective scientific enterprise.
Empowering everyone. Science affects everybody, and everybody should be part of this conversation. To quote Chiamaka Obiolo, a 17-year-old high school student and aspiring scientist who spoke at the Boston science rally, “The good news of science is not exclusive to the elite, and thus its message must permeate throughout the masses and empower everyone from the youth to the elderly.”
The more scientists can engage with people’s everyday concerns, address anti-science rhetoric wherever we find it, celebrate our successes, acknowledge our failures, and promote a science that empowers everybody, the more likely we are to succeed.