What is a Scientific Activist?
Welcome to The Scientific Activist, a new source of news and commentary on science, politics, science policy, and everything in between. By providing information and insights on recent scientific developments, political issues in science, and the proper role of science in an everchanging world, this site hopes to make strides toward increasing public understanding of science, clearing up misconceptions, and opening up a dialogue on these important issues. This site also encourages the reader to become a scientific activist him or herself. I invite you to participate often and widely, and hopefully we will all learn something.
As science continues to play an increasingly prominent role in society and everyday life, the pace of public understanding of science has not kept up, leading to basic misunderstandings about science and a general lack of science literacy. Although usually manifested as a lack of support for certain types of scientific research or theories—particularly evolution, global warming, stem cell research, transgenic crops, and animal research—this dearth of understanding also causes people to place undue faith in miracle cures or to become unable to separate basic science from the ways some have applied scientific advances. Although some leaders can be blamed for intentionally misleading the public on scientific issues to achieve political goals, and the media can be blamed for often inadequate coverage of science, it is up to scientists in the end to become activists in their own right, and make educating the public a major priority. We cannot assume the science will speak for itself, and this was a major driving force behind the creation of The Scientific Activist.
Science is fundamentally a path of inquiry toward understanding nature. Although science is often equated with its applications—particularly in the pharmaceutical, biotechnological, and chemical industries—a major difference in philosophy and motivation exists here. Although basic science is purely about the search for knowledge and understanding, the applied sciences have a variety of different motivations, some admirable, others not. As many people become disillusioned with the industrial applications of science, scientists will have to step up and make this distinction to protect the credibility of their own field, advancing the cause of basic science, and supporting only proper applications of science.
Proper applications of science are those that improve people’s lives, empower the public, preserve the environment, and expand our knowledge of nature. For example, although past scientific advances have given some industrial plants the ability to produce polluting chemicals, science can also help us produce clean and renewable energy sources. Although the proper use of science generally falls into a progressive philosophy, scientific activism should not be beholden to a particular political ideology. In addition, scientists must also avoid falling into the trap of blindly supporting any scientific cause or application. For example, due primarily to the overwhelmingly inaccurate information coming from the opposition, life scientists in particular have felt the need to demonstrate firm and unwavering support for transgenic crops. Although the scientists have focused on describing the sound scientific basis of transgenic crops, this has often precluded them from discussing other implications, including the role transgenic crops could play in further consolidating agriculture worldwide. It is up to scientists to not only correct the scientific record but also to openly discuss the proper role of these scientific applications. In the case of transgenic crops, this includes the need to keep academic researchers heavily involved in their development of transgenic crops and to push for the development of the promised humanitarian benefits.
The life of a scientist is about understanding nature and communicating findings, which should naturally lend itself to engaging the public as well. There is an important role in society for those who search out information and broadcast it to the public, and only if people have access to the truth in all of its stunning complexity do they stand a chance of making the best decisions, for them and for society in general.
Introducing the Writer
I am currently a graduate student at Oxford University, working toward a doctorate in biochemistry. I graduated in May 2005 from Texas A&M University with an undergraduate degree in the same subject, and I headed to Oxford in October as a new Rhodes Scholar. Although I spend a great deal of my time in the research lab studying structural biology, my interests span a wide range, with the top three—science, politics, and the media—coalescing into the basis of The Scientific Activist.
Science is my first love, and I have long been interested in understanding the chemical basis of life. As a biochemistry major and Goldwater Scholar at Texas A&M University, I wrote my senior honors thesis on the movement of vascular cells in blood vessel development. I found blood vessel development fascinating because it is essential for normal growth, development, and healing, but also contributes to a variety of pathological conditions, including cancer. Through my current work, carried out under the guidance of Professor Iain Campbell, I seek to understand how individual cells in the body interact with their surroundings—basically how cells feel what’s going on around them and how they react accordingly. To study this, I look at the chemical details of the players involved, the proteins on either side of the cell membrane. Although this is an admittedly reductionist approach to understanding life, it can yield deep insights, especially when coupled with other approaches.
In addition to my scientific interests, my interest in politics blossomed when I was at Texas A&M, where I was president of the Texas Aggie Democrats, an active member of the Brazos Progressives, and a volunteer on multiple campaigns. I saw my political role at A&M as a disseminator of information, and I believe that my desire to discover and communicate knowledge and information is the common thread connecting my diverse interests. Along these same lines, I was science writer and opinion columnist for A&M’s student newspaper, The Battalion, during my final semester there. Although the media should be of interest to anyone in politics, I found the experience of actually practicing journalism fascinating, and my interest in the media hasn’t waned since. I’m currently a member of the Oxford Media Society, and I hope to continue to be involved in journalism indefinitely.
More recently I have become interested in science policy, public understanding of science, science activism, and the role of scientists in society. In short, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can be a responsible scientist. I look forward to discussing these topics and science in general, and I hope to read about what you think as well.