Solidarity with Scientists

Mathematics has an interesting relationship to science. People often think of mathematicians as a subset of scientists, and scientists definitely use mathematics in their work, but our day-to-day work, careers, and the kinds of problems and thinking that interest us most are often very different. Right now, in the face of an administration that is muzzling scientists, mathematicians need to think about joining forces with scientists to advocate for policies that are important to us as mathematicians/scientists as well as educators and members of society. In November, I wrote a post about what mathematicians should do now in the wake of the surprising presidential election result. This post is a follow-up, more focused on actions scientists are currently taking.

A marcher carries a pro-science sign at the Utah Women's March on Monday, January 23, 2017. Image: Monica Hymas Rasmussen.

A marcher carries a pro-science sign at the Utah Women’s March on Monday, January 23, 2017. “What do we want? Evidence based science! When do we want it? After peer review!” Image: Monica Hymas Rasmussen.

A few days ago, a group of scientists and science lovers started organizing a March for Science on Washington. There are very few details available so far, but you can follow their blog to stay up-to-date. I hope they take seriously the people, especially black scientists, critiquing the organizers and encouraging them to prioritize intersectionality, diversity, and inclusion.

If the word “intersectionality” has you scrambling to find the volume of a Steinmetz solid, don’t worry. If there’s one thing mathematicians should be good at, it’s learning new definitions and how they fit into existing contexts. Alycia Mosley Austin, associate director of the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program and assistant dean of graduate recruitment and diversity initiatives at the University of Rhode Island, has a post for scientists new to activism, highlighting resources you can use to get up to speed.

There are many science-related policies Trump has discussed that cause me alarm, but I believe the absolute most crucial one is climate. Climate change is a pressing, urgent problem. It will impact many areas of our lives: economic stability, infectious disease, social justice, food and water safety. We should oppose efforts to silence scientists speaking about climate change and other important scientific issues. That means scientists at the EPA, NASA, national parks, and other organizations must be able to do research and share information with the public regardless. In response to censorship of their social media accounts, some rogue national park rangers created @altNatParkSer (though they have since given it to people who are not employed by the National Park Service). People from other agencies have followed suit. You can find them all on Alice Stollmeyer’s Twistance list.

University of California Riverside mathematician and prolific math and science blogger John Baez has been helping to organize and publicize the Azimuth Climate Data Backup Project to save that important information in the event that government agencies that have collected it are asked to destroy it. He has written about the project in several posts on his blog, starting last December. We can all hope that it is unnecessarily alarmist, but Trump’s first few days have not made me optimistic, and it would truly be devastating to lose that information.

It would also be devastating for us to lose the contributions of our Iranian friends and other immigrants and refugees from Muslim countries. Part of why America’s math and science research are so strong is that we attract some of the best mathematicians and scientists from all over the world. Some came as children in refugee families, some came as adults to study or work. While we speak out about clear attacks on science in the form of intimidation at the EPA and national parks, we should also speak out about the threat to science if we lose the contributions of immigrants and refugees as a result of a travel ban on visitors from majority-Muslim countries. The National Iranian American Council has more details on the potential executive order, and Scott Aaronson has a blog post elaborating on how terrible this would be. ETA: Since I published this post, the executive order has been signed, and it has immediately gone into effect. If you are an academic who opposes it, here is a petition you can sign.

Since the election, I’ve heard more murmurs than ever from mathematicians and scientists thinking about running for office. As far as I know, there’s only one mathematician in Congress, California representative Jerry McNerney. But the website and blog 314 Action, which aims to help STEM professionals speak to government or run for office, is inviting mathematicians to the party by using the first few (decimal) digits of π—the math version of the bat signal—in their name. The AAAS congressional fellowship is another way for mathematicians and scientists to get involved in politics. Applications open in May, so you’ve got a little time to put yours together. ETA: See Karen Saxe’s comment for more information on these fellowships. The AMS sponsors one that is due February 15.

I must admit, dear readers, I’m worried, and I don’t really know what to do. I’d rather disengage, cross my fingers and hope nothing bad happens. When I feel like that, I read University of Hawaii at Manoa mathematician Piper Harron’s reminder to Stay Screaming.

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3 Responses to Solidarity with Scientists

  1. Avatar Shecky R says:

    Probably worth noting out-loud that activist biologist Michael Eisen has announced his candidacy for Senator in California (assuming California remains in the Union ;-)) Some may be more familiar with his activist brother Jonathan. Unfortunately, CA. probably isn’t a state we most need such representation from, but in any event wish him well in a daunting task.
    It’s a shame that it took Trump rising to office to make scientists aware of how destructive Republicans have been to science for decades, and finally begin banning together.
    Finally, I don’t think there is ANY doubt that mathematicians are part of the ‘science community’ and would be expected to participate in these activities.

  2. Avatar Karen Saxe says:

    I know that many in the mathematics community are concerned about the issues that Evelyn raises in this post. As the brand new Director of the AMS’s Washington DC Office, let me offer some more information about the fellowships that she mentions. There are about 275 fellows (PhD scientists from all fields) working in the federal government each year — in all three branches. Almost all are in the Executive branch and are “AAAS fellows”; deadline for this is November 1, though you can start uploading your application in May (via the link she included). Each year there are also 30-40 fellows in Congress and ONE of these is sponsored by the AMS. The deadline for this is February 15 and you can find info here:
    Please contact me directly if you would like to apply this year; there is still time!
    Reach me at:

    • Avatar evelynjlamb says:

      Thanks for the clarification and helpful links, Karen. I was unaware of the difference between the AAAS fellowship and the AMS-AAAS congressional fellowship.

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