24 January 2017

Asking scientific societies to show some backbone

In light of the EPA freeze, I spent a chunk of today writing emails and filling out contact forms to pretty much every scientific society I belong to. After all, I had tweeted this:

EVERY scientific society in the US better be preparing to defend the EPA. Or science in the US is screwed.#EPAFreeze

This got more than the usual number of likes and retweets. It would be extra crummy of me not to follow up on contacting my professional organizations after arguing that scientific societies need to step up against this kind of stuff.

Ask yourself: “Have my professional societies done anything more political than say, ‘Please don't cut funding?’” Will they fight? #EPAfreeze

Why should scientists press their professional societies to do this? Many are already political advocates in Washington, DC, like the Society for Neuroscience. They have an “Advocacy” button right on the main navigation menu, and their current message from the society president is about strengthening advocacy. Scientific societies have infrastructure and organization and credibility and clout in a way that individuals don’t always have.

So I wrote letters to my scientific societies. I already had the email addresses to some of the presidents. I was disappointed that some societies didn’t give email addresses for their presidents, but they all had “Contact us” forms on their webpages, so those got used.

My letters mostly read something like this.


You may have seen news today that several American research agencies, like the EPA and USDA, have been ordered to not talk to the public. The EPA has been instructed to freeze all their grants.



Even though this doesn’t seem to have strong effects on researchers in this field now, I worry about the “domino effect” on other agencies if these sorts of threats aren’t strongly opposed. And I know this is an international society, but certainly many members are in the US.

I personally am hoping my professional societies, like this one, are willing to speak out about the importance of scientists being able to communicate with the public (say). I suspect many scientists would like their societies to show some leadership and be strong advocates for science against political threats.

While I am decided to start by asking scientific societies to become stronger advocates for members specifically and science support generally, citizens living in the United States have elected representatives. I found this Facebook post by Jacquelyn Gill last month extra helpful:

Things I’ve learned* about effective communication with elected officials:

  1. Online petitions are treated like one single correspondence, regardless of how many signatures you get. They’re basically useless.
  2. Tweeting at elected officials is basically pointless unless you are famous.
  3. Phone calls are effective, especially if you can call your district office (rather than the office in Washington), and especially if there is a large surge in calls. Ask for a response. Make sure you state that you’re a constituent.
  4. There is zero point in calling, emailing, or writing to someone who doesn’t represent you (unless you are the CEO of a business or something similar where you can pull financial support from a state). Elected officials only have a mandate to represent their constituents; they will ignore you otherwise.
  5. Personalized written messages are very effective – bonus points if these are hand-written, and double-plus-good bonus points if these are written by kids. Explain exactly why something matters to you, with an anecdote. (E.g., “My kids are scared of their teachers being deported,” or “The Muslim business owner whose shop I frequent is getting harassed.”)
  6. Most elected officials have Google alerts on their names. This means that blog posts, op-eds, articles, or letters to the editor about them get noticed – even if it’s a small-potatoes blog.

* This advice comes from listening to folks who have worked on the Hill or in district offices in several states.
Other countries have faced this sort of thing before, and managed to have political support for research emerge, not intact unscathed, but not eviscerated. But I think the attacks are going to be much, much worse in the United States in the days and months and years to come, and I think American scientists have been more reluctant advocates than in other countries, perhaps because the budgets have been bigger and science has traditionally gotten bipartisan support. But the game has changed, and I don’t know if scientists, and their societies, are going to adjust to the new rules fast enough.

Update, 25 January 2017: Back in 2012, I wondered what it would take to get scientists to march on Washington. Well, now we know.

A march on Washington by scientists is being planned. More as I learn it.

Update, 27 January 2017: Here are the responses from the societies I contacted.

Related posts

The political attack on science escalates with EPA granting freeze

Photo by Kurt:S on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

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