Election 2016: What’s next for young scientists?

5:30:00 AM

We all expected that the 2016 presidential election would bring big changes. But I doubt many of us expected this kind of change. The election of Donald Trump over Secretary Hillary Clinton suggests difficult times ahead for us as a nation and for us as scientists. As a friend wrote, someone who doubts the value of vaccines and shouts that climate change is a hoax is now in the highest office in the land. What can we as scientists contribute when much of our best work and ideas are rejected by our President-elect?

It is possible that not all scientists are dismayed about the pending presidency for a host of personal and political reasons. But I think that no matter our political leanings, this change of power will cause challenges in our lives as scientists – both in our professional lives and for our deepest intellectual selves. We need to identify those challenges and prepare for them now before we are caught up in whatever waves will rock us next.

Both Science and Nature have their own takes on the future of science in the next presidency.

One of the toughest parts about dealing with the coming Trump administration is the uncertainty about what will unfold. Trump has made many campaign promises, and many of those are either infeasible or inconsistent. For a rough outline, read about Trump’s promises for his first 100 days in office as well as fact-checks for those plans. Only time will tell how many of those he sticks to.

However, we can make a few predictions about what might happen over the next two to four years in the United States based on the known leaders currently in power, chiefly Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan. I think that we’re going to deal with somewhat decreased government funding for a host of agencies like the NIH, the NSF, and NASA. I am most concerned about sharply decreased funding for the EPA and the national parks. Overall, I think that we can expect a government focused on fiscally conservative policy that reduces governmental regulations and funding and that creates an altered business and tax climate for large corporations.

Here are some questions we can think about for the immediate future:

How do we build flexibility into our careers when we don’t know yet what the future holds?

  • Outline career back-up plans. These back-up plans could include using different scientific skills than you focus on now, brainstorming new research topics, or identifying opportunities in industry research or consulting.
  • Look for mentors in other subfields or in industry to make career transitions easier.
  • Identify companies, from start-up to behemoths, that do research in your field or research that uses skills you currently have.
  • For those of us whose civil rights might be threatened under a Trump presidency, look for companies or universities located somewhere that shares your values. For example, I’m a New Yorker who wants to live somewhere that protects women’s rights – so I would look for university and industry jobs in New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut. Others might narrow down a job search for places with strong voting rights or protection for immigrants.

How do we find the right balance between what is possible in a limited research environment and what we most want to study?

  • Many of us think that basic science is important, but the professional and funding cultures of certain fields can limit the pursuit of basic science. These limits have been previously described in “Rescuing U.S. biomedical research from its systemic flaws."
  • For those of us interested in more basic science or in out-there ideas, we can look at other researchers in our fields to find out how they tackle practical problems – and get funded for tackling them - while making some room for creativity and curiosity-driven science.
    • For example, I want to work on the convergence of evolutionary and cell biology. In order to develop my career in this area, I’m going to look towards the work of Sarah Sawyer here at CU Boulder and Nels Elde at the University of Utah. Sadly, I don’t think I’ll be able to model my research career after Lynn Margulis. I imagine that you can also think of researchers working at the crossroads between practical and curious in your area of interest.

How do we work with the new administration about our concerns?

  • The Union of Concerned Scientists has published a good summary.
  • Write to your house reps and senators about science issues that affect you.
  • Write to the heads of budget, science, and environmental committees in Congress even if they are not your representatives.
  • Because the new administration will be conservative, appeals to the economic value of science funding, investment, and basic science may be effective. Here's a source about that value, and here's another one.
  • A politician might only need to get a few letters on a particular topic before they consider it important or change their views. Make sure your reps listen by encouraging multiple people express similar concerns. Even better: grab some drinks (whether that’s beer or coffee), and write a letter with your friends about an issue important to everybody in the group.

How do we work against the new administration if we feel those concerns cannot be addressed?

  • Support local, state and national candidates who do value science.
  • Vote every year! Local elected officials matter. In CO you’ll get a ballot in the mail. Keep your registration up to date so you can always get a ballot at your current address 
  • Vote in the 2018 midterm elections. If you are unhappy with the new administration, you can help to restore checks and balances in the Senate and the House of Representatives in 2018.
  • For candidates that you would otherwise support but that have not taken a stance on science, encourage them to support science funding and to use science when crafting policy.
  • Volunteer for and support science-focused organizations that resist the new administration and try to protect research, empirical thought, and the environment from dangerous or ignorant policies. See the end of the article for a brief list of organizations.

In addition to the practical challenges we might face over the next few years, there are larger-scale challenges we need to prepare for as well. While we prepare ourselves and our careers, we should keep these broad challenges in the backs of our minds and be ready. Despite any political differences between us, I think all scientists can agree on a few things:

Truth and fact exist. For many of our questions there are answers that can be systematically investigated. We can ask questions about the physical world, about the life on it, about the intricate and infuriating workings of people’s minds and we can find practical and useful answers. Answering questions with concrete information is an essential first step towards knowing our world and ourselves. Determining what is factually correct is required to making substantive change. We must first know what we are changing in order to change it. This applies at all scales, from sub-atomic particles to cells to societies.

Anyone willing and interested can learn about and appreciate science. While not everyone has the interest or the pure stubbornness required for a career in science, everyone can learn given exciting and engaging outreach. And everyone can appreciate given the many gifts that the scientific method has given us over the last few centuries. For these reasons, the difficult jump from our research to the public is more important now than ever before. We need to communicate the value of the work we do, both individually and as a field, in order to give people the tools to learn and appreciate. We need to bring the public the joy and curiosity that gets us to our labs and field sites and computers every morning.

Science can be a true meritocracy. While this is often not the case in practice, many of us have a dream that our scientific fields are ones where the creative, the hardworking, and the collaborative can contribute to public knowledge and public good. We dream that what matters is not your race or religion or gender. What matters is the depth of your questioning and the value of your ideas.

Right now, the United States feels very hostile to those values. I fear that we as a nation might forget the value of fact, lose sight of the importance of education and science in everyday life, and let the dream of meritocracy filter into dust.

But if we work, we can uphold our values as scientists and keep those values intact for our people, our country. And lord knows scientists work hard.

The first major issue we can tackle is communication.

Somehow, many people have come to reject the value of science – perhaps because they do not feel how science effects their lives, or perhaps because they have other concerns overriding potential curiosity and joy. But because science impacts us all so intimately, making sure the public knows about this impact is more important than ever.

We need to make our work and our knowledge accessible. We need to engage with writers and speakers who reach out to the public. Even small steps matter.

Here’s how you can get started communicating your science:

  • Present at local events like Story Collider or TEDx (apply for TEDx CU 2017 here)
  • Write for blogs like Science Buffs!
  • Listen to podcasts for ideas about how to discuss science in an accessible and fun way. I’m a big fan of Microbe.tv podcasts (This Week in Virology especially), Science … sort of, and StarTalk. If you can, write in questions or see if they’d want to cover your work or have you on as a guest.
  • Volunteer as a museum guide. Both the CU Boulder NaturalHistory Museum and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science have volunteer programs.
  • Take policy-focused communication workshops, like those offered by the Union of Concerned Scientists
  • Practice describing the value of your work to friends and family as often as they can handle it without going insane, so that when you do want to discuss science with the public you have lots of experience.
When we’re not directly conveying the importance of our work or the joy of science in general to the public, we can make sure that it’s represented accurately elsewhere. Often, university communication offices will send out press releases about newly published work. This list of tips can also help you interact with reporters and the press.

The other thing we can address right away is inclusion. We need to hold up our colleagues even through personal and scientific differences. We can still enjoy our over-beer bickering, our paper-intro inside baseball, our ultimately productive disagreements about the details of methods and the scale of our questions. What we cannot do is let our colleagues become diminished and discouraged. For those of you who teach, encourage your students, especially women and people of color.

It will be much, much more difficult to address the loose relationship our culture currently has with fact and truth. Ultimately I think this will come down to communication, education, and community. If we can get started talking about our work now and contributing to the next generation of scientists now, I hope we can grow up into a world where truth and fact regain their full value in the eyes of the public.

And I hope you all will join me in focusing on communicating our work both to the public at large and to our elected representatives.

For those who want to get involved, here are some places to start:

Policy info and advocacy:
Volunteer opportunities:

Citizen Science:

I wrote this as a biologist with training in evolution, ecology, and cell biology. If readers in other fields have other organizations they like or causes that they want to advance, we’d love to hear from you and add your suggestions to this article.

By Bridget Menasche

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