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What does the scientific community advocate for? The case for “science justice”

When scientists approach politics, they often do so through the lens of their own profession, wishing that politics was more evidence-based…
What does the scientific community advocate for? The case for “science justice”

When scientists approach politics, they often do so through the lens of their own profession, wishing that politics was more evidence-based or that policymakers would root out misinformation in debates as aggressively as scientists do.

But this is often an unhelpful way of thinking about politics, just as it would be unhelpful for a banker or an architect or a master electrician to map their profession’s practices on to politics and expect good results.

Fundamentally, all advocates, including science advocates, should understand that politics is about power. In practice, that means politics answers two fundamental questions:

  • Who gets a say in how society makes decisions?
  • How does society allocate public resources?

That doesn’t make politics bad or icky. It simply suggests that science advocacy — like every other form of political advocacy — needs to directly address those questions. And increasingly, it’s clear that we need science to grapple with fundamental issues related to justice — and a lack of justice — in society.

That includes the erosion of civil rights, particularly the the abuse of science in gerrymandering and in the criminal justice system. It also includes addressing rising inequality, both when it comes to issues that directly affect our field, such as the graduate student tax, as well as pushing for scientific projects that deliver tangible services and benefits to people.

Just as the climate movement has begun to center environmental justice issues in its work, the science advocacy community must start to define and center “science justice” in its work, too.

Centering justice issues is an organizing principle as well as a physical one. The People’s Climate March literally put frontline communities, including environmental justice groups, at the front if its marches.

Defining Science Justice

An honest examination of how power is distributed in the United States should challenge our conceptions about where the lines are between science advocacy and other aspects of politics or if those lines exist at all. Especially at a time when civil rights are under attack, from the right to vote to the right to an education, science advocacy can only stay relevant for society if it is rooted in justice.

Science justice requires:

  • sharing the benefits of science with more people more equitably
  • preventing scientific institutions from harming and oppressing people, including preventing institutions from censoring scientists and scientific information
  • scientific accuracy, including understanding science in the context of its history and how it’s used and abused
  • recognizing how science intersects with justice-seeking movements
  • working in solidarity with those movements to seek justice

Importantly, science justice can’t confuse representation with justice. It recognizes that diversity is one measure of how organizations demonstrate a commitment to justice but it also understands that diversity alone does not prevent organizations from ignoring, downplaying or even perpetuating oppression.

To borrow a favorite phrase from the civil rights movement, science justice doesn’t confuse the absence of tension, in which scientists are left alone to do their work, with the presence of justice, in which science and scientific institutions actively serves the public.

Finally, science justice encourages advocates from relatively privileged backgrounds, particularly white men, to commit themselves to fighting discrimination and getting other people from privileged backgrounds to work as allies in justice seeking movements, too.

(Note: I’m not sure where the term “science justice” originated and hope that writing and sharing this can help me figure that out! Among the earliest uses of the #sciencejustice hashtag on Twitter are one from @BlackPhysicists, an account focused on equity and black voices in STEM, Janice Sternwadle, who describes herself as a transracial gender activist, and Rhonda Ragsdale, who describes herself as a historian and sociologist focused on social movements.)

Why science justice? Understanding history points us toward science justice

Most of my professional work has been with climate researchers, many of whom never expected to find themselves working in the middle of a contentious policy debates. Climate scientists who have spent years working with policymakers have developed a deep understanding of where they fit in and they’ve challenged their peers to recognize the value judgments that are intrinsic to any form of advocacy, including science advocacy.

As NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt has argued:

  • Positions that are viewed as uncontroversial in the scientific community, such as the need for more science education or science literacy, are simply not taken for granted outside the scientific community. Why, for instance, shouldn’t schools with limited and time and budgets promote more financial literacy instead?
  • Science advocates can not hide from their values, but should articulate them instead. When they fail to share their beliefs, audiences assume what their beliefs are for them.
  • Finally, in a noisy political and media environment, demands for attention from policymakers, journalists and other advocates necessarily cause less attention to be paid to other issues and other constituencies.

Similarly, climate researcher Simon Donner has examined how values-based judgments always inform science advocacy, even at the most basic level of choosing which science to share with a given audience, all the way through to activist scientists who debate the efficacy of specific political tactics.

Further, historians point out that U.S.-based science advocacy suffers from a Cold War-era hangover. As the federal government dramatically expanded its research budget, policymakers censored scientists who spoke out about the dangers of the military-industrial complex and the use of nuclear weapons, in particular. This created a culture of silence and a posture of policy neutrality among scientists, even as the civil rights movement and Vietnam War raged around them, though many scientists participated in justice-seeking movements despite admonitions to keep their heads down.

In this same era, federal rules regarding non-profit advocacy groups also began to prohibit “electioneering” by tax-exempt organizations, an ill-defined term that often leads advocacy groups to avoid mentioning policymakers or political parties by name at all, thus separating a great deal of their advocacy work from meaningful accountability for policymakers. And although universities are often viewed by rightwing pundits as hotbeds of leftist activism, they are often unable to engage in direct advocacy because they are also government bodies or have deep financial ties to grant-making government agencies.

Going back further in history, advocates should understand that scientific institutions are deeply tied to the history of European colonization. Colonizers saw scientific advances as a way to outcompete and out-exploit other nations and they used scientific tools to promote the transatlantic slave trade and develop “biological” theories of race to justify slavery and the genocide of indigenous people.

Because those practices are so abhorrent, many science advocates tend to avoid thinking about them objectively or try to define these links in ways that disassociate them from science’s past and present. But even today, indigenous people are fighting the placement of a telescope atop one of the most sacred mountains in Hawaii.

Indigenous protectors block the construction of a telescope atop a sacred mountain in Hawaii.
Water protectors square off against police to prevent construction of the North Dakota Access Pipeline.

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical physicist who has compiled an extensive reading list on “decolonising science” and has referred to efforts to educate resistant scientists about the history and politics of their field as “fighting scientist with science.” Indeed, for social scientists, anthropologists and historians, these links are clear, but too many scientists will even go so far as to define these fields as unscientific rather than grapple with the actual evidence their peers have collected about our society.

For researchers who work in and around public health, the links between justice and science are more obvious. African-Americans, for instance, are much less likely to trust the medical establishment, due, in part to medical atrocities such as the Tuskegee experiments and systematic bias among medical professionals, who score pain expressed by black patients as less severe than pain expressed by white patients. In these instances, anti-racism practices and a commitment to science justice literally and immediately save lives.

Dorothy Charles, a medical student and organizer for White Coats for Black Lives, has argued that science advocacy benefits from fighting discrimination, writing that “science can only exist as long as there are people to do it.” Rather than science advocates fighting for the freedom to do science, she says, they should simply fight for everyone’s freedom. Doing so would necessarily strengthen the scientific community’s ability to do science.

In practical terms, a scientific community that “promotes diversity in STEM,” but doesn’t do anything to fight societal discrimination fundamentally limits its ability to promote diversity in STEM.

Relatedly, science justice issues are at the heart of how our democracy functions. In my work on voter mobilization and voting rights, the links between science and voter suppression efforts that target black, Latinx, Asian and indigenous communities are obvious. For instance, advances in data science and geospatial analysis have made it easier for Republican-controlled legislatures to gerrymander districts and dilute votes from marginalized communities, denying them political power and resources. A group of mathematicians and data scientists have identified big-data driven gerrymandering as a “fundamental threat to our democracy” and are working to combat it.

Similarly, convenings like Data 4 Black Lives explicitly link science to a variety of discriminatory practices and work to use scientific tools to empower marginalized communities instead:

…data is too often wielded as an instrument of oppression, reinforcing inequality and perpetuating injustice. Redlining was a data-driven enterprise that resulted in the systematic exclusion of Black communities from key financial services. More recent trends like predictive policing, risk-based sentencing, and predatory lending are troubling variations on the same theme. Today, discrimination is a high-tech enterprise.

And the Black Lives Matter movement has made explicit appeals for more access to science classes and tools to address ongoing inequities in education, more than 60 years after Brown vs. Board of Education.

Additionally, scientists from marginalized communities and their allies have consistently challenged the scientific community to recognize and address the harmful ways in which it perpetuates discrimination, including discrimination focused on gender, race, national origin, orientation, religion and ability. New groups such as 500 Women Scientists are working to reform scientific institutions themselves, fighting sexual harassment as part of the #MeToo movement as well as other forms of oppression within the scientific community.

Understanding censorship as a scientific injustice

Science advocates are highly motivated by fighting censorship. Our community sees silencing scientists and deleting data as intrinsically wrong. But we often fail to see the link between censorship and justice.

The case of tainted water in Flint, Michigan is illustrative. Flint obviously represents a story of environmental injustice. After it became clear that the city’s water supply was tainted, Flint’s city council, democratically elected by its majority-black residents, voted to switch its water supply. But they were overruled by a state-level, Republican-appointed emergency manager. At the same time, state employees, including scientific staff, censored data that revealed how tainted Flint’s water was. In April 2016, several of those employees, including a water engineer, lab supervisor, and district water supervisor were charged with criminal misconduct.

Flint’s water crisis is certainly an environmental injustice. But that act of censorship was a scientific injustice, too.

Meanwhile, scientists like Virginia Tech’s Marc Edwards and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha exposed the contamination and empowered local residents with data, access to scientific tools, and transparency.

That’s science justice at work.

A public demand for science justice on “the rock,” a community message board in Flint. PSI was a company the state hired to collect water samples.

Taking a step back, political choices about what kind of science gets funded and made publicly available can also be just or unjust. In the case of exposing and preventing water contamination, testing is done via a patchwork of local, state and federal rules that leave many lower-income and rural areas behind. There are a lot more Flints out there and the fact that we don’t know how many there are is a problem justice-rooted science advocacy should address.

Troublingly, the Trump Administration has buried or scrubbed at least 40,000 federal data sets that used to be publicly available, including data on worker safety, ecological assessments, and even data about relatively uncontroversial policies, such as promoting energy efficiency. Each of these acts of censorship has damaging consequences for people and exacerbates injustice by hiding public data from public view.

Appendix: addressing politics denial

Just as politicians can suffer from science denial, scientists can suffer from various forms of politics denial. Below are some response to things I’ve heard when discussing justice issues with scientists and science advocates.

“This isn’t really a science issue.” Science is absolutely implicated in debates about civil rights, educational access, criminal justice and discrimination. Saying that it isn’t a “science issue” is just another way of saying that one does not view these links as important enough to expend one’s advocacy resources on.

“This is identity politics.” When senior scientists like Steven Pinker dismiss civil rights and discrimination as “identity politics” they demonstrate that they have not taken the points their colleagues and civil rights advocates are raising seriously. Almost all politics is “identity politics.” The problem is that some people are oppressed because of their identity.

“This hurts our cause.” Some science advocates will argue that justice issues distract from other priorities or risk alienating Republican politicians. These arguments put the prospect of short-term incremental gains ahead of long-term, justice-oriented advocacy. More importantly, they dismiss civil rights issues in ways that alienate potential allies in other justice seeking movements. Working with justice seeking movements builds the scientific community’s political influence.

“Science is for everyone.” Many arguments conflate the rah-rah ways the scientific community promotes STEM education with political advocacy. Science is not for everyone. Discrimination prevents people from marginalized backgrounds from succeeding in science and from enjoying the benefits of science. Advocacy work that fails to recognize those inequities often perpetuates them instead.

“That’s technology, not SCIENCE.” Science and its use can not be conveniently divorced. Science does not exist on an ethereal, philosophical plane. It is a human enterprise and choices society makes about which science to fund, use and deploy are inherently political.


An earlier version of this essay referred to Sarah Tuttle as a contributor to the Decolonising Science reading list maintained by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein. That’s not the case. I misread an introductory note regarding a specific project they were collaborating on as collaborating on the list itself. Thanks to them both for the correction.