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How will scientists, universities respond to forces of political denial?

Brown University Christina Paxson offers a framework for scientists’ response to the current threats to the scientific enterprise

By Richard Asinof
Posted 2/20/17
It is not just the media, but science and scientists that are under attack by the Trump administration. In her remarks at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston on Feb. 16, Brown University President Christina Paxson provided the framework for how to respond.
How many scientists, academic researchers and members of the biotech and life sciences community in Rhode Island will be participating in the March for Science on April 22? How will Gov. Gina Raimondo and her economic development team respond to efforts to eliminate the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and to dismantle environmental regulations? What will be the response by the U.S. under President Trump if the threat of an H7N9 flu pandemic becomes a reality, striking the U.S. in dramatic fashion? How will the Social Enterprise Greenhouse and its platform of social enterprise focused on businesses that promote health and wellness respond to threats posed by the Trump administration? Will it business as usual?
The latest version of MedMates, call it 4.0 or 5.0, I’ve lost count at this point, is planning to hold its first annual Life Sciences Expo on April 26, with the goal of showcasing the exciting growth and diversity in Rhode Island’s life science industry, with a regional focus. In normal times, the gathering would be seen as the kind of inclusive conversation within the emerging innovation ecosystem to promote convergence within an industry cluster framework.
However, coming a few days after the national March for Science on April 22, and the perilous times confronting academic research and the scientific community under the Trump administration, will it require a different approach to the agenda?

BOSTON – Make no mistake. Under the Trump administration, it is not just the news media that is under attack as purveyors of fake news and an enemy of the people. It is also science, scientific research and scientists.

How will scientists and universities, the academic home for science and researchers respond to the threat?

A March for Science is planned on April 22, Earth Day, in Washington, D.C., paralleling the Women’s March held on Jan. 21. Scientists are also scrambling to copy all the research data collected on climate change so that it will not be scrubbed or erased by the Trump administration.

Brown University President Christina Paxson gave the opening remarks at the 183rd annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Feb. 16 in Boston. Here are excerpts from her remarks, in which she framed the challenge for how scientists should respond to the forces of political and social denial:

“Each year, this meeting draws together a group of scientists, scholars and others who are interested in science to recognize advances in scientific research and discovery.

And, in doing so, we affirm our faith in what we can observe and test and validate and replicate and therefore know to be true. We affirm that evidence-based facts, not alternative facts based on opinion and belief, are our currency as scientists.

Now, while this meeting, as always, will celebrate scientific discovery, I know that there will also be much discussion about risks and threats to the scientific enterprise that all of us are concerned about.

Risks, threats to the scientific enterprise
Today, our community is galvanized by very real concerns – possible reductions in federally funded science research – maybe that’s a perennial concern; the fear of clampdowns on science communications issued by federal agencies; and an executive order on immigration that has sent an extremely unwelcoming message to researchers and students from abroad and has hampered research efforts.

I would say that almost a more existential concern is that what scientists do – the work that we are committed to throughout our lives – is increasingly undervalued.

In turn, sign-on letters have been circulated, marches have been planned, and an organization [that is] preparing scientists to run for public office has been formed. Clearly there is something going on. Clearly a line has been crossed.

But the truth is, we’ve seen this movie before. Politically and socially motivated assaults on academia and science aren’t new. They have flared and dissipated dating all the way back to the Scopes trial.

More recently, we’ve seen state legislation banning the use of scientific estimates of future sea level rise in coastal protection planning. We have seen states reject National Academy of Sciences education standards because they include discussion of evolution, climate change and embryonic stem cells.

At various times in our history, the science community has been compelled to respond to waves of science denial and threats to open public dialogue around scientific issues. While there is a great deal of uncertainty about how the issues that we’re concerned with now will play out, I think it is safe to say that we have arrived at another of these moments. And so as before, we will refine the case for science. We'll redeploy its explanatory power.

What I hope we all stand for
I would highlight three themes that we need to communicate loud and clear – things that I hope we all stand for.

The first is that we stand for science as an engine of economic growth and prosperity. One of the major first lessons of any economics student is that long-run economic growth is driven by technological change and increases in knowledge.

Now, a corollary is that gains in technological change and advancements in knowledge are not all distributed evenly. Those gains can result in inequality. I believe we have a responsibility to grapple with this fact, address this fact, although without slowing the pace of discovery.

Second, and this is the theme of this conference, we stand for science as the basis for sound policy. We know that evidence-based policymaking works – that policies based on credible scientific work produce positive health outcomes, keep people safe, improve the quality of drinking water, improve access to education and jobs, and protect our planet.

Third, we stand for science as a global public good. This reflects the comments that Gerry [Richmond, president of the AAAS], made in her opening. Yes, the AAAS is an American society, but we all recognize the global nature of our business. We know that engaging people from all around the world – the best, the brightest, the most diverse thinkers from everywhere – enriches the quality of scientific discovery and adds to the global marketplace of ideas.

The best way to tell our stories
So what can we do? Our challenge is to present research in ways that cast science as a collaborative undertaking for the public good, as a pathway to prosperity, as a source of innovation that enriches people’s lives. And in a material world where material solutions are demanded to poverty and to disease, to illiteracy and conflict, evidence of impact goes a long way toward building a public trust and confidence around the value of science.

At the same time, we also have to do something that’s even harder, though, which is to learn to tell stories of how basic scientific research, which may not have an immediate practical impact, builds the essential base for the applied science work that comes sometimes years and years later.

Over the course of these meetings, I hope that one thing we’ll all think about is the best way to tell the stories of why our collective work is vitally important.

Confronting denial
In closing, I want to give you a small bit of Brown University irony in my presence here — within the last hour, Brown Professor of Biology Ken Miller delivered a campus lecture titled, “Science Denial: from Anti-Vaxers and Climate ‘Skeptics’ to the Ark Park — Why it Continues and Why it Matters.”

If I hadn’t been here, I would have been there. And Professor Miller, as some of you may recall, was here at the AAAS annual meeting last year revisiting lessons of the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover case, challenging the teaching of intelligent design in public school science classes as an alternative to evolution.

I’ll close with an observation from Professor Miller [in 2014], who reminded us that: “Science is not a body of knowledge. It’s more than that. It is a way of thinking. It’s a search for truth that illuminates every aspect of the human condition.”

So let’s go on being who we are, doing what we do and sharing it with the world. Let’s go on with our research. Thank you very much.

The role of the university in fighting science denial
In an interview before his speech, Miller was asked about what role he thought a university should be playing in confronting science denial. Here is what he said:

MILLER: A simple answer [to the question] would be that universities need to promote scientific literacy. Indeed, we need to do that across all levels of the educational system. But I think it is even more important to promote the cultural and social values of science itself.

The way to combat science denial is not to insist that everyone in society needs to “listen” to what scientific experts say and act accordingly.

Rather, it is to draw citizens into the culture of science, to export the experience of scientific discovery, and to generate a sense of excitement and passion about the scientific enterprise.

A society, a university, a nation that embraces the values of science is ultimately one in which freedom of thought and expression will thrive. That should be the goal of any institution of higher education, and it certainly must be the core value of Brown University.

A wall will not protect us from flu pandemic threat
As much as President Trump trumpets his belief in an America First economic policy and his plans to construct a wall on the southern border to contain illegal immigration, the reality is that the U.S. lives within a global ecosystem.

New reports are that H7N9, an avian influenza virus that emerged in 2013, is spreading widely in China, causing a sharp spike in human infections and death, according to a report in Science. In January alone, it sickened 192 people, killing 79, according to announcement by China’ national health agency. The cumulative toll from the latest outbreak of H7N9 flu was 918 laboratory confirmed human infections and 359 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

The surge in human cases is cause for alarm, according to Guan Yi, an expert in emerging viral diseases at the University of Hong Kong in China, as reported by Science. “We are facing the largest pandemic threat in the last 100 years,” Yi said.

The best protection
The best protection from H7N9 flu may be from a tweaked vaccine now in clinical trials in Australia, the improvements made through the immuno-informatic tools developed by EpiVax, the pioneering Rhode Island biotech firm based in Providence. [See links to ConvergenceRI stories below.]

Dr. Annie S. De Groot, the CEO and chief science officer at EpiVax, sent ConvergenceRI the following email in response to the news of the re-emergence of H7N9.

“Our vaccine is in arms in Australia,” De Groot said. “Hopefully it shows better [results] than the very low immunogenicity vaccine that was made before. We’re doing a side-by-side comparison.”

“If it does,” De Groot continued, “it will be a huge win – for the world, for vaccines in general, and for your home-grown vaccine design company, EpiVax.”

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