Is the March For Science "Playing Identity Politics?"

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Is the March For Science "Playing Identity Politics?"

In the wake of fake news and President Trump’s anti-science policies, organizers announced the March for Science, which will be held on April 22, 2017. “The March for Science demonstrates our passion for science and sounds a call to support and safeguard the scientific community,” the official website states. “It is time for people who support scientific research and evidence-based policies to take a public stand and be counted.” Like the successful Women’s March back in January—which had an estimated 4,000,000 attendees nationwide—the March for Science will be held in Washington, DC, along with many other satellite marches worldwide.

Unfortunately, also like the Women’s March, the March for Science is facing controversy over diversity.

Michael Shermer, founder of The Skeptic Society, recently voiced opposition to the March for Science’s diversity principles on Twitter. “By making the March for Science political,” he tweeted, “it will be less inclusive & effective [because] ‘social justice’ means different things to people.” Shermer then wrote a blog post further explaining his position, claiming that society has made a lot of progress “since the 1960s … to correct the biases of the past and open the doors to more people in more fields,” including science. Therefore, as Shermer recently tweeted, the March for Science’s emphasis on diverse representation is “identity politics defining who participates in science. Science is for all.”

“He’s totally missing the point if you ask me,” says ecologist Dr. Kaberi Kar Gupta. She is the Principal Scientist for the Urban Slender Loris Project, which aims to educate people about urban biodiversity and conservation by studying the effects of urban life on slender lorises in Bangalore. According to Kar Gupta, there is still a lack of women and people of color in science because of the way science is taught in schools. “The way we teach science with this very type of fixed mindset that science is not for everybody and you have to be smart enough to do science,” she says. “By saying that, we are actually chasing the students away or making students go away from science instead of being interested in science.”

Indeed studies show that gender and racial biases still exist within the science field, making it difficult for women and people of color to pursue science careers. For example, in a 2015 issue of the American Society for Cell Biology newsletter, Nilanjana Dasgupta wrote about how imposter syndrome is frequently felt by many female students, which causes them to switch from pursing STEM careers to other majors. Part of it is due to a lack of exposure to women in STEM. “Meeting female experts enhances young women’s positive attitudes toward STEM,” Dasgupta writes, “and how much they value STEM fields and boosts their confidence and motivation to pursue careers in science and engineering.” Media representation of women in STEM, female peer mentors and teamwork also help, according to Dasgupta.

Another example is a recent report published by Elsevier that shows women in science still publish fewer science journal articles than men, despite the growing number of women in research and invention. Although factors such as maternity leave and less specialized research areas do play a part, the report also recognizes “bias in hiring, authorship, recognition and promotion” contribute to the gap as well. Shortly after that came out, Erin Ross of Nature Magazine wrote about another study that shows “male editors were much more likely to pick male reviewers, whereas female editors were more likely to pick other women.”

As far as racial bias in STEM, it’s not much better. Last year Edward J. Smith wrote about his experiences as a black man in STEM for Science Magazine. Throughout his career, he’s had principal investigators double-check his lab work, fellow scientists show discomfort around him during social events and even had a fellow researcher mistake him for a delivery boy. Despite facing obstacles, though, Smith was still happy to be in the STEM field. “I believe that the career I have carved out for myself will help pave the way for future generations of underrepresented minority (URM) scientists to thrive,” he wrote, “and for all members of the scientific community to be more culturally sensitive than those who came before them.”

When it comes to fixing these problems, there’s no easy solution. While Kar Gupta is right that teaching children the value of science at a young age will attract a more diverse group of people into STEM career, they’ll still face systematic marginalization and implicit biases in the work field. Shermer is right about one thing, though: Science is for everyone. Unfortunately, societal hurtles still exist that prevent that from being a reality. Acknowledging those hurdles isn’t “playing identity politics:” it’s the first step in making science accessible to all.

Trav Mamone is a queer trans blogger who write about the intersections of social justice and secular humanism at Bi Any Means. They also host the Bi Any Means Podcast and co-host the Biskeptical Podcast.