Have you heard that scientists are planning a march on Washington? The move is not being billed as a protest, but rather as a “celebration of our passion for science and a call to support and safeguard the scientific community,” although it comes as a direct response to recent policy changes and statements by the Trump administration.
Not everyone thinks the nonprotest protest is a good thing. It’s “a terrible idea,” wrote Robert Young, a geologist at Western Carolina University, in The New York Times. The march, Young said, will just reinforce a belief among some conservatives that “scientists are an interest group,” and polarize the issue, making researchers’ jobs more difficult. Others find that argument less than convincing, pointing out that science and politics have always been intertwined.
By becoming “allies of a particular cause, no matter how just, we jeopardize the social contract that underpins the tradition of financial support for basic research.” In other words, don’t cross Congress—which many scientists already view as hostile to their profession—and risk retaliation in the form of budget cuts. That’s no small pie, either. Through its oversight of the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Energy, and other agencies and programs, Congress holds the strings to a research purse worth nearly $70 billion a year.
Let’s take a moment to absorb all that. Some (unnamed but easily identified) scientists, lulled by the media, have cast themselves as superheroes in a struggle against villains born of their own conceit. Their arrogance and vanity threaten to awaken the master, who will punish us all for the sins of a few. We rarely get the opportunity to watch a chilling effect in action, but you can almost see the breath of researchers caught up in a debate over the proper role of scientists in the crisis.