Defending Science with Dr. Gretchen Goldman

Union of Concerned Scientists/Audrey Eyring

From hurricane forecasting to product testing, scientific research plays a vital role in keeping Americans safe and healthy. But this work is under threat with Congress and the new administration proposing
significant federal agency budget cuts and environmental rollbacks.

On April 22, 2017, scientists will descend on Washington, DC for the March on Science, a mass demonstration to champion evidence-based policies and speak out against recent attacks on scientific research and the environment.

We spoke with Dr. Gretchen Goldman, research director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), to explain the situation leading up to this historic moment. She says that while scientists are alarmed by these new threats, they have also never been more willing to get politically involved.


Your background is in environmental engineering and atmospheric science. How did you end up doing advocacy?

I researched the health effects of air pollution in grad school, and it became apparent to me that the reasons we don’t have cleaner air is because of policy. So I moved to Washington, DC to try and get into policy work - it felt very action-oriented. I had known about the Union of Concerned Scientists in school and admired their smart balance of science and advocacy. I’ve been working here for five years and it’s been as great as I imagined it would be.


There are large gaps in scientific consensus on issues like climate change, and what the public believes. Who is doing the best work in communicating science and closing this gap?

There’s a wealth of research on science communications now. At UCS we try to incorporate social science knowledge to make sure it’s appropriate to specific audiences.

As a society we’re kind of obsessed with polling data, but we also need to think about how we get action. We didn’t advance civil rights in the 1960s because we changed everyone’s mind. It’s not necessarily about convincing people - it’s about effective political action.


There’s been a lot of ink spilled over the idea that we live in a “post-truth” society. Do you agree with that idea?

It’s important that we don’t throw up our hands and say “facts don’t matter”. I’m more concerned about the places where those facts and policies affect real people. The administration and Congress can’t hide from that. There’s a lot we can and should do to push back and prevent the damaging real-world impacts these policies could have.


What should the relationship be between scientific research and its practical applications?

I think the scientific community is struggling with that. Many scientists are now realizing that science is political and that our values include things like diversity and ethics. UCS was founded because people were concerned about the use of science for military applications. This moral question is at our organization’s core. Ultimately, the goal of science is to serve society.


With groups like 314 Action (an organization recruiting scientists to run for public office), we’re beginning to see more scientists get involved in politics. Do you think this trend is likely to continue?

I hope so. I’ve been amazed at how much interest in policy the scientific community is displaying - it’s on a whole new level. Historically, scientists have been reticent to be political, but that reticence is gone. They’re starting to say “What can I do? I want to do more than sign a letter”. It’s been incredible to see groups like 314 Action and 500 Women Scientists come up organically. That it’s happening outside traditional organizations gives people a new perspective and shows how much passion there is.


Tell us more about the upcoming March for Science and how UCS is getting involved.

UCS is partnering with the march because we believe that science is the foundation is a strong democracy and we need to protect that. UCS will have a group marching at both the March for Science and the People’s Climate March. I attended Boston’s Science March on February 19. It was so exciting to see the thousands that came out and all the fantastically nerdy signs and people in lab coats. I also marched with a group of scientists at the Women’s March in January. It’s a lot of people realizing that they’ve been marching all along, but now their identifying themselves as scientists and joining together.


What else is UCS focusing on now?

We’ve just launched a website, that documents all the ongoing attacks on science from both Congress and the Trump administration. Some of the things we’re tracking include the removal of data from agency websites, funding cuts, gag orders on federal science communications, and the politicization of federal contracts. We’re also accepting anonymous tips from federal employees on abuses.

Federal agencies keep us safe in ways we aren’t even aware of. Cutting programs at place like the EPA will be detrimental to public health and safety.


What excites you most about this work?

I’ve always cared about this work, but I feel like I have newfound purpose. It’s so clear now the value of what we’re doing and why it matters to people. When UCS launched the Center for Science and Democracy, its focus was abstract to me, but now it feels like we were born for this moment. This is exactly the kind of institution we need right now.


How can the average person support this work?

People can sign up for our activist network  to stay informed, talk to decision-makers, and write letters to the editor. We work with thousands of citizens and scientists to push back on attacks on science. Our Science Network also has a lot of resources and tools for scientists looking engage in the policy process and communicate their work.

Want more more tips on taking action? There are lots of ways to be an active citizen: voting, volunteering, starting or joining an advocacy organization, raising money for a cause you care about, protesting, writing letters to the newspaper, calling or visiting your representatives, attending a community or government meeting, running for office… and more: How To Be a Super Citizen!





Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear on this weblog until the author has approved them.

If you have a TypeKey or TypePad account, please Sign In.