Why are We Marching for Science?

So it begins.

Before the Portland March for Science began at 11 AM on Earth Day 2017, this was the question in my mind. Because it was Earth Day and the March was happening in hundreds of cities worldwide, I decided to think about it in a context broader than just Portland or the United States. Here’s what I came up with.

There are more than seven billion humans on planet Earth right now, which is an objectively spectacular number. As writer David Quammen puts it in his book Spillover: “We’re unique in this history of vertebrates. The fossil record shows that no other species of large-bodied beast — above the size of an ant — has ever achieved anything like such abundance as the abundance of humans on Earth right now.”

And we’re not done achieving abundance. We will probably hit 9 billion in the next two decades.

Now let’s look all the way back to the beginning of human civilization. In 8000 BC, the human population was about 5 million. Which means we made ourselves 14,000 times more abundant in 10,000 years.

10,000 years may feel like a long time to us–I mean, there are young people alive today who think Pulp Fiction is ancient–but 10,000 years is a tiny blip in the big picture of life on Earth. If you compressed the 500,000,000 year history of vertebrate species to 178 minutes – the running length of Pulp Fiction–the human success story of 10,000 years would be the equivalent of 0.21 seconds. So from the Earth’s perspective, not only did our population grow by stupendous numbers, it grew stupendously fast.
Another important nuance to note – it wasn’t a simple explosion in numbers like an algal bloom, because algae’s position in the food chain doesn’t change after the bloom. Our story is different. Our distant ancestors were just another mid-level player in the ecosystem, often surviving by scavenging from carcasses. 80,000 years later, we are the most powerful animal on Earth. How did this happen?

The generally accepted story is that our distant ancestors’ brains evolved, giving them complex linguistic skills and making them good at pattern recognition, planning, forethought and cooperating in large numbers towards a common goal. This created an ever-expanding, shared body of knowledge that was then passed on to the next generation, who could continue to build on that instead of having to reinvent the wheel – literally.
Our ancestors never stopped gathering knowledge because they never stopped asking questions or coming up with hypotheses to explain the natural world. This process became much more effective after the Scientific Method was formulated in the 16th century. Our ancestors came to accept that any hypothesis, even if it was made by Aristotle, was worthless unless experimental evidence confirmed it.

And so a scientific revolution ensued, and how has the average non-scientist person living today benefited from it? We have now doubled human life expectancy at birth and totally eradicated horrifying diseases like small pox that killed over 300 million people in the 20th century alone. We split the atom, mastered cheap air travel, built near-instantaneous global communication networks and created vast amounts of wealth that raised living standards worldwide.

What is not widely known by non-scientists about many of these recent achievements is that they probably would not have happened without government-funded organizations. In the United States, the federal agency National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) helped develop many aeronautical breakthroughs that are still used today – like retractable landing gear, jet engine compressors and turbines. Global eradication of small pox was conceived within the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The splitting of the atom was accomplished by the Manhattan Project, whose administrator was a visionary by the name of Vannevar Bush who, incidentally, proposed a desktop machine called the “Memex” in 1945 – “a sort of mechanized private file and library.” This vision directly led to future work that created Hypertext and the invention of the computer mouse, without which the internet cannot function.

After World War II ended in Allied victory, Vannevar Bush wrote a report to the President of the US titled “Science, The Endless Frontier” describing the importance of continued government support for basic scientific research during peace time. In this report, he admitted that “The scientist doing basic research may not be at all interested in the practical applications of his work, yet the further progress of industrial development would eventually stagnate if basic scientific research were long neglected”. Why is that? Bush explained: “One of the peculiarities of basic science is the variety of paths which lead to productive advance. Many of the most important discoveries have come as a result of experiments undertaken with very different purposes in mind.” He’s right. Wilhelm Röntgen was investigating the effect of passing electricity through gases at extremely low pressure when he discovered X-Rays in 1896. He won the Physics Nobel in 1901 and he couldn’t possibly have predicted that his investigation was going to revolutionize the field of medicine.

Seven decades after Bush wrote that essay, we are facing a new set of challenges – many of which are of our own making. Our communication networks are becoming infested with deliberately deceptive “news” stories, creating a post-truth environment where facts are often flexible and sometimes irrelevant. The rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria may one day cause a pandemic that will be able to spread like never before – thanks to cheap international air travel. At the same time, a well-organized and well-funded movement of anti-vaccine activists with no medical or scientific qualifications is gaining traction. Climate change caused by decades of cheap fossil fuels is threatening animal and plant species in every habitat imaginable, including humans fleeing their homes to escape rising seas or crop failures. Income and wealth inequality have reached historic highs – 75% of the world’s population still live on less than $8.5 per day. One effect of this inequality is that the top 10% are responsible for almost as much carbon emissions as the bottom 90% combined. More than seven billion humans are living longer and consuming more resources than ever – driving global overexploitation and accelerated destruction of the biosphere. It can be argued that we achieved extreme abundance too hastily for our own good, without much forethought. Not so different from an algal bloom after all.

Problems of this magnitude are probably impossible to solve without a fundamental shift in the way we live our lives in the natural world. Such a fundamental shift will require at least another revolution of the scientific kind, if not also of the socio-economic kind. So how are America’s scientists and federal-funded research institutions doing these days?

In a Pew survey conducted in 2014, 83% of scientists said that finding federal government funding was harder than it was five years ago. This situation has worsened significantly under the new administration that has proposed slashing funding to the National Institutes of Health [NIH] by 18%, a 31% cut for the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] and an 18% cut to the Office of Science within the Dept. of Energy. The President also intends to roll back vehicle emission regulations and dismantle the Clean Power Plan that has prevented thousands of premature deaths due to pollution. Not surprising, given the new administrator of the EPA has repeatedly denied on camera that carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to global warming.
Global problems aside, the government couldn’t have picked a worse time to turn its back against science, reason and critical thinking. In Dec 2016, we learned that life expectancy had declined in America for the first time since 1993. Why, then, would we want to cripple the NIH with funding cuts? What’s the sense in slashing the EPA’s budget and funneling more money towards our military that already dwarfs the rest of the world? Especially when even the Defense Secretary agrees that climate change is a national security issue that can trigger global instability? Why open up federal lands to be ravaged in the name of coal mining while the entire world is moving away from coal? Why deny the scientifically proven reality of climate change and pass up the enormous economic opportunity to lead the world towards next-generation energy technologies?

As I stood on the Morrison Bridge ramp taking pictures of the crowd assembled on the streets, I couldn’t come up with answers to any of those questions. And I couldn’t believe we have to actually march in support of facts, defend the objective truth and fight for evidence-based policies. The march attracted not only men and women of science who would continue asking questions and studying the natural world in spite of dismal financial rewards, but also regular people with regular jobs who recognized the danger of intellectual stagnation and regressive policies. Hundreds of thousands of people just like them occupied streets around the world to send a clear message to the people in power that turning against science and objective truth would not be tolerated. This was the first march of any kind I had been a part of and it was an uplifting, unforgettable sight.

And I was also left with one last question I couldn’t answer. Shouldn’t every single person in the world be marching for science?

Written by: Yash Murthy