Jordan Shaw was a lab technician working in food safety a few years ago when one of his supervisors, a researcher working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, published a study comparing eggs from organic and free-range chickens to standard eggs.
Time published her results: there was little difference in terms of safety or quality between the different eggs.
When the magazine posted the story on line, Shaw was stunned. “The comments on that were just unreal, like ‘you can’t trust the USDA because they’re the idiots who made the food pyramid,’” said Shaw, now a food safety consultant living in West Des Moines.
That made Shaw consider how to help the general public better understand science. “What we’re seeing now, really badly, is that science is elite, it’s liberal, all this stuff, and the problem is our populace just doesn’t understand, honest and truly, what is peer-reviewed science.”
His alarm increased when he read reports that the Donald Trump administration was suspending research grants and communications from key government science offices, especially those associated with the environment.
So Shaw – and others across the state – are taking action. They’re planning an Iowa version of a national march in Washington, D.C., to support science and research.
Perhaps at no other time in history has the integrity of American science been more threatened. The new president has a history as a climate-change denier and has encouraged anti-vaccination forces. His vice president questions the evidence for evolution and supports teaching intelligent design.
Just days after taking office, the Trump administration froze grant activity at the Environmental Protection Agency. The longtime climate-change denier he put in charge of the EPA transition team says he expects the agency to suffer significant cuts.
The new administration also shut down social media and public information for multiple offices, including EPA, USDA and other agencies that sponsor and disseminate research.
In light of the threat to science-based policy and government support for research, several scientists are organizing a national March for Science, seeking support not just from scientists but any citizen who sees research and evidence as critical to democracy and progress. They’re taking a page from the women’s movement and the huge marches held in Washington and around the world on January 21.
When Shaw heard about the national march, he set up a Facebook page in the predawn hours of January 27 to organize a satellite event in Iowa, only to find that Shamus Roeder, a University of Iowa human physiology and biomedical engineering student, had already done so. Now they’ve joined forces with a third organizer, Iowa State University genetics student Kaitlin Higgins of Ames.
In less than a week, the March for Science Iowa Facebook page has received more than 1,600 likes and followers. Its Twitter account (@ScienceMarchIA), just started on Friday and already had 355 followers by Sunday night.
The details are still in flux, with much depending on the official date for the national march. (An announcement is expected as early as today.) There will be a march in Des Moines, but there may be others in the state, with Iowa City a likely location.
“That’s the pending question that’s going to drive the volunteers,” Shaw said. Once the date is announced, the Iowa organizers will poll likely participants and volunteers about their interest in multiple locations. Then they’ll post an online sign-up form for people interested in helping plan the event.
For now, organizers are collecting email addresses and names of prospective volunteers. They’ve set up channels on the Slack messaging application and are coordinating with the national March for Science.
Shaw said he’s been impressed by the people offering their expertise. “We’ve got guys who are IT folks, programmers, who are going to town on building applications to make this happen. They’re building accounting systems and communications tools” and more. “I’ve seen some brilliant people working on this, Shaw said, adding “It kind of makes me proud that people can work like this.”
As I told Shaw, when folks have a unifying cause, other differences drop by the wayside. I hope that in Iowa and across the country, people of all political philosophies will join to support the preeminence of science in making policy and advancing the nation and the world.
Some will say this is about scientists protecting their supposedly fat research grants. Perhaps, but it’s those grants that provide tomorrow’s insights, cures and technologies.
To me, it’s about ensuring science is at the forefront when officials make policy about climate, health, education and more. It’s also about ensuring the integrity of government-sponsored science. Researchers should be free to publish their results, regardless of whether they support or weaken a particular party or politican’s viewpoint.
I intend to get involved in this effort. I hope you will, too.