Why Activism?

    David Blockstein. “How to lose Your Political Virginity While Keeping Your Scientific Credibility.” (BioScience 52:1 (January 2002), pp 91-96. 

       For many scientists, activism is an extension of science and research.                                                                                  

     “It has to do with the understanding I get from science. And some of that understanding, I feel, leads me, has led me, to more activism as a role. I mean, you can take a piece of information, and you can do lots of things with it. You can try to publish it; you can try to develop a practical aspect of it, like a therapy, or a machine; or you can look at the implications in the public health arena, or the public policy arena. I guess I’ve always considered those a kind of continuum of ways that information becomes valuable, and ways that I take information and then try and go further with it.

         (David Baltimore, January 20, 1995, in p1. Shane Crotty. Ahead of the Curve: David Baltimore’s Life in Science. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. 2001.)

    But what did activism look like? I was bothered for years by the apparent lack of scientists involved in public life, thinking there hadn’t been scientists out publicly as social activists since the protest against the Vietnam war in the USA. But in 2010, while at the Yamana Science “Unsummit”  in Washington D.C., I wandered around the 1st USA Science and Engineering Festival which was set up in and around the mall. As I turned a corner, I suddenly faced around 10 buses that had been independently outfitted as traveling labs for the public. Some were wet labs, some were microscope labs….all had been conceived, funded and created by scientists to introduce non-scientists to the beauty of science. This was activism! And the more I looked around, the more activism I saw, scientists writing books for laymen, giving talks in bars, doing demonstrations in museums on weekends, writing op-eds in local newspapers…yes, and classically protesting, signs in hand, scientists as citizens everywhere.


        Not everyone believes that activism is related to the job of a scientists: some believe activism is incompatible with the objectivity associated with scientists. There may be risks. There may be challenges to one’s integrity and objectivity. There may be accusations of incompetence to speak out. There might be a missed promotion, or time spent as an activist that isn’t considered by a tenure committee. But scientists are also citizens, and for many, it is worth the constant negotiation with self and others to wear both hats well.

      The talents of scientists are useful and vital in many realms beyond the bench-in policy, in education, in local environmental issues, in any situation in which data analysis can help. You don’t have to be an activist. If you want to be, you don’t need permission. But you might need help. These stories of the activism of other scientists and citizens may be an inspiration and a guide.