Scientists Say They Are Under Attack, Now They’re Fighting Back
HOST INTRO: Scientists say they are under attack. By a president who has proposed drastic cuts to federal science programs. A president who has withdrawn from an international climate agreement. Who appointed an Environmental Protection Agency director that believes climate change is a hoax. And now, those scientists are taking off their lab coats and heading for the streets. Bo Hamby has more.
HAMBY 1: It was the first sunny Saturday of Spring… and hundreds of New Yorkers were standing in Washington Square Park. But they weren’t there for the sun. They were there to take part in what is now a yearly event under the Trump administration. The March for Science. And before they marched down Broadway, the marchers listened to supporters like Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.
((SOUND: crowd in Washington Square Park))
BREWER 1: You are here because you know it is all of our responsibility to stand up and say facts matter, ignorance is not a solution.
((SOUND: crowd in Washington Square Park))
HAMBY 2: And there were other defenders of science, like Lauren Kurtz. Kurtz is the executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund. The Defense Fund provides scientists with legal support when they or their work are attacked. Kurtz’ organization also partnered with the Columbia University Law School on the Silencing Science Tracker. They’ve been tracking government attempts to restrict science since Trump’s inauguration. At the march — she gave the crowd a glimpse of what they’re dealing with now.
KURTZ 1: Since November 2016, we counted 126 of these incidents. 126!
HAMBY 3: A week after the march, I met Kurtz back at her office on the upper west side. She says the tracker looks at incidents of government censorship, budget cuts and fake facts. But those aren’t the only problems scientists come to her with.
KURTZ 2: They get nasty hate mail, or we were talking to a researcher a couple weeks back who got a death threat on Twitter because of his climate research.
HAMBY 4: She says they’ve even helped a scientist get a restraining order. And the Defense Fund also deals with threats from congress.
KURTZ 3: We’re working with someone who right now who is being targeted by, I’ll just say a climate denier, in Congress. And facing an investigation because of his research that supports the evidence for climate change.
HAMBY 5: And all of these attacks… the death threats and investigations… it’s been piling up.
KURTZ 4: We get between one and four a week… depending on the week. (Bo: That seems like a lot.) It is definitely a lot.
HAMBY 6: And work at the Defense Fund got really busy when Trump took office.
KURTZ 4: We are getting a lot more queries. Things like: the Trump administration has told me I can’t publish my report that contains the words climate change. What can I do?
HAMBY 7: There’s not a lot Kurtz or her clients can do. If the scientist is a federal employee, they have to follow the administration’s rules. So instead of putting up a fight in the lab… scientists are taking to the streets.
((SOUND: Hey hey, ho ho, we won’t let our planet go chants))
HAMBY 8: Kathy Barker knows that chant well. She’s a microbiologist living in Seattle, and she also wrote a book on scientists as activists. Barker says she’s never seen anything like the march for science before.
BARKER 1: No, I think this is pretty unusual.
HAMBY 9: She’s been an activist for decades, and she says unusual is good. She participated in Seattle’s March for Science a few weeks ago, and she’s encouraged that the movement has kept going more than a year after the inauguration. But she’s also concerned that things may be going too far.
BARKER 2: It’s become a very partisan issue. And there are groups who have taken off on the march for science and they’re trying to get democratic scientists elected.
HAMBY 10: And that can have repercussions. A recent study published in the journal of Environmental Communication shows the public sees scientists who advocate for specific policies as less credible. But at the same time, a survey by the Pew Research Center shows public confidence in scientists has remained stable for decades. It’s confusing. Do you get involved in politics? Go out and protest? Or just stay in the lab and work? I went to New Jersey to find out.
((SOUND: Doorbell ringing. Intros at the door.))
HAMBY 11: That’s Ariana Tsiattalos. She’s a conservation ecologist at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. She’s also a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an organization that takes part in rallies, protests and also lobbies politicians. She says scientists need to do all of that.
TSIATTALOS 1: This is something I’m doing for me, and for the future of humanity and for earth. So it’s not just about politics. It doesn’t stop when you publish your paper. It doesn’t stop when you clock out at 5 p.m..
HAMBY 12: Tsiattalos says she involved herself in activism when people started questioning her research… in the same way President Trump questions the science behind climate change.
TSIATTALOS 2: I work with construction officials who are proposing to build in an environmentally sensitive area… and when our regulations are inconvenient, they will very much, I’ve seen this, piggyback on the idea of well, you don’t know that science is actually right.
HAMBY 13: Edgardo Sanabria-Valentin has seen this kind of reaction, too. He’s a biology professor at John Jay College, and he was also at the march for science in New York. He says the reason that so many scientists are turning to activism is because almost everyone’s work is being threatened.
VALENTIN 1: The threat of censorship, the threat of budget cuts shook up most of the scientific community. And they’re realizing that, you know, we cannot just be in our benches doing our experiments. We have to get out there. We have to get the message out. And it is our responsibility.
HAMBY 14: He’s encouraged by the amount of people showing up to defend and support scientists. But… he’s worried that the movement may be running out of momentum.
VALENTIN 2: I just hope that people don’t get too exhausted. And please remember there are elections every year, not just on presidential elections.
HAMBY 15: The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
SOC: Bo Hamby, Columbia Radio News.