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AAAS CEO to Young Scientists: Speak Up. Keep Focused. Carry On.

Rush Holt, former Congressman and physicist, explains how scientists should move forward under the Trump Administration.

Rush Holt

Image: Kate Bohler for Asia Society/Flickr/CC-by-2.0

Dr. Rush Holt is a former eight-term Democratic Congressman from New Jersey who served 16 years in Congress, and after retiring in 2014, became the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the non-profit organization that publishes the journal Science (and associated publications). He is a physicist and was also previously the assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics laboratory. This is his message to young scientists in the wake of the US presidential election of 2016, published in full. — the editor.


In the wake of the presidential election, Anna Scott, a Ph.D. student who works on climate and urban issues, expressed concern about the fate of the planet and her career. "It's nerve-wracking," Scott said in response to a recent survey. "I think this election eliminates the possibility of me working at agencies like NASA, NOAA, or EPA anytime soon."

Early-career scientists and engineers grew up with a science-savvy president who promised to "restore science to its rightful place," so it's understandable if some are apprehensive about change in Washington. Surely, attention to science during the presidential campaign was neither appreciable nor appreciative, and that followed years of dismissive attitudes from leaders toward climate studies, vaccination, public health, the teaching of evolution, and other science-society issues.

But we must not despair. Science has faced challenges throughout history, from one administration to the next, but year in and year out it has led to human progress, enriching our culture by improving quality of life and human knowledge about our place in the universe. Consider the speedy response to Zika. Remember the chirping song of gravitational waves, which this year confirmed Einstein's theory of general relativity. Imagine future advances in robotics, which could bring new hope to people living with spinal cord injuries.

It always has been possible to find some bipartisan support for science. Now is the time to build on that latent bipartisanship. In fact, science can be a bridge across partisan divides.

We must put to rest threats to science, while at the same time seeking friends among opinion-makers who understand the power, beauty, and usefulness of science and the need to incorporate it into public policy. Any new Administration means change for the U.S. scientific enterprise, although the threats seem greater now. The transition team recently issued an unusual request for the names of employees who have attended conferences on climate science. Some climate scientists are so worried that they have been swiftly copying U.S. climate data, to preserve them. Some 11,000 women scientists have signed a pledge to rally for inclusiveness in science.

However, the answer is not to draw inward, but rather, to confidently, respectfully, and clearly explain the connection between scientific advancement and our economic progress, human well-being, and national security. Often, scientists think that their first priority should be to argue for more research funding, but that does not touch the deeper problem. While it is true, for example, that China's science spending is likely to surpass that of the United States by 2019, the problem is more profound.

Unfortunately, science is often treated as just another interest group to be pushed aside by more powerful interests. In recent decades, opinion and ideological assertions have crowded out scientifically validated evidence on some issues. If policymakers and citizens don't recognize the role that science now plays in modern everyday life, and the value of scientific evidence to help us make better public decisions, research and innovation will not thrive. The need for scientists and scientific institutions to effectively communicate about science and its relevance is more important than ever. Just remember, next time you're dazzling non-scientists with tales of marsupial space robots, to emphasize that the beauty and power of science is available to them, too – not just the "what" of science, but the "why."

Early-career scientists must run a gauntlet of obstacles while shouldering the weight of the nation's hopes for a better future. Most researchers don't receive their own first major NIH research grant until they are at least 42. A scarcity of academic jobs has meant that newly minted scientists and engineers must remain flexible about their career choices. Fortunately, we have today a broader definition of "success" in science.

In short, young scientists are expected to cure cancer and discover new planets while fighting for jobs and funding. Fortunately, there is power in numbers. Early-career scientists can prepare themselves by engaging with groups – including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the one that I run – which offer science communication training, opportunities for scientists and engineers to engage in policy, and tools for catalyzing advocacy. The promise of science to uplift the next generation of innovators, drive prosperity, and ease human suffering is a powerful message.

So, speak up. Keep focused. Carry on.

Rush Holt, a former congressman, is the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive director of the Science family of journals.

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