Going From Science March to Political Impact

I was at the Bonn/Köln iteration of the March for Science and it was a good time. But as I watched the marches around the world, especially in the U.S., my thoughts turned to how to create further action. Large turnout in cities populated predominantly by people who already value science and empirically-based policy making can only go so far. A few quick thoughts going forward…

  1. Get involved in local politics. This is a goal I’ve set for myself, at least as much as I can as a non-citizen in the country I work in. It’s amazing how much physical and social science training can be put to use in local settings. For example, everything I know about collective action problems is not only useful in studying participatory governance in developing countries, it’s also applicable to town and city government. If you’re in the Earth sciences, get on the planning board or an Earth-science relevant area of local government.
  2. Once you have achieved joining the local government *do not turn into a know-it-all*. I have expertise in collection action problems; my job is not to remind people how dumb we are as a species for falling into the normal collection action traps. My job is, understanding those traps and knowing how they work in theory, to help the rest of my town hall compatriots manage them. This isn’t a lecture hall, it’s participation in governance.
  3. Think about how to broaden the base. Yes, a march is good and snarky signs are funny, but at some point people in districts in other parts of the country will elect representatives. As scientists, we have to make science valuable to people, so that they don’t elect charlatans who would take us back to the Middle Ages to line their pockets with a few bucks from lobbyists. One way to do this is to make the history of applied science, and the collective role of society and government in that history, central to any argument about the value of science in public policy. As scientists this starts with us – we have to be fluent and engaging in not only explaining the practice of our work, but the history (social, political, economic) of how our work fits into society. I read a great book on the history of urban planning in New York City a while back; there was a lot of detailed analysis of the engineering science, but it was written wonderfully. I had no idea how interesting, both from a social and chemical standpoint, concrete was. Making interesting what seems banal to non-scientists  would go a long way.
  4. If you have tenure, run for office. It’s hard as hell getting an academic or research career started, so if you are established and have some clout and job security, take advantage of your privilege and get involved in politics. Younger researchers will model this behavior as they become established as well.

That’s I’ve got at the moment (well, lots more, but it’s only a blog post). Be excited about science, be excited about it’s role in society, and don’t forget: People often vote on emotion. Empirics are good, but an engaging story will go a long way, too.