Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

NZ scientists: why we march this Saturday

Recent policy developments pushed through by new US President Donald Trump have drawn the ire of many scientists. Photo / File
Recent policy developments pushed through by new US President Donald Trump have drawn the ire of many scientists. Photo / File

Kiwi scientists are set to take to the streets in solidarity with US colleagues protesting against the policies of President Donald Trump - while also calling attention to concerns facing the sector at home.

In more than 500 cities around the world, tens of thousands of people are expected to mark Earth Day - this Saturday in New Zealand time - with the March for Science event.

In the US, the march takes aim at recent political events that its organisers fear damage and undermine science, and its use in the public interest.

Scientists convening marches in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Palmerston North say many of its themes resonate here.

The event protested against the rejection of established climate science, the "injustice" of laws that exclude people from scientific communities on the basis of their country of birth, race, or religion, and marginalisation and exclusion of women and minority scientists.

"We acknowledge that in Aotearoa New Zealand the scientific community has yet to live up to the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and that there is an ongoing process of decolonisation required to achieve greater inclusion of Maori in the scientific community," organisers stated on the event's website.

They also pointed to former prime minister John Key's dismissal of concerns aired by freshwater ecologist Dr Mike Joy about the impact of the dairy industry on water quality; and also a code for "public engagement" previously proposed by the Royal Society of New Zealand, which some scientists feared could have a silencing effect.

But Dr Craig Stevens, president of the independent New Zealand Association of Scientists, said he'd seen in this country "nothing like" recent developments in the US.

Five of them singled out by major US science magazine Scientific American, included Trump's appointments of Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt - who has questioned the science behind climate change - to the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and climate sceptic and former Texas governor Rick Perry as Energy Secretary.

"But we only have to look across the Tasman to see echoes of these views and political developments," Stevens said.

"I still get a cold shiver recalling an Australian politician holding up a lump of coal in Parliament saying it was harmless - during a weeks with record heatwave temperatures and political machinations to blame power outages on renewable energy.

"The water and dairy debate in New Zealand has similar complexities."

Details of the marches can be found here.

Q&A: Are our experts under attack?

Four of New Zealand's best known scientists, all of whom are marching this Saturday, discuss some of themes and concern behind the movement. They are New Zealand Association of Scientists (NZAS) president Dr Craig Stevens, immediate past NZAS president Associate Professor Nicola Gaston, science commentator and Massey University microbiologist Dr Heather Hendrickson, and Weekend Herald science columnist and University of Auckland nanotechnologist Dr Michelle Dickinson.

Are we seeing a worrying trend of people turning their back on science and anti-intellectualism?

Craig Stevens (CS): The changes have been so rapid that it is difficult to detect if there is a worrying trend among various societies.

Social media amplifies these trends but also create a discretionary media where you can find yourself listening to people you agree with.

What is clearly apparent though are the political shock-waves.

Only today Australia has announced immigration controls focused on "jobs for Australians" - echoing "America First".

This will potentially dramatically impact overseas postdoctoral researchers.

Nicola Gaston (NG): I have started to wonder if it's not just a new form of conservatism driven by the fear of change, and the feeling that we have gone too far, too fast.

I think this is a common thread between the issues that have driven Brexit, and the election of Trump in the US.

University of Auckland nanotechnologist Dr Michelle Dickinson. Photo / File
University of Auckland nanotechnologist Dr Michelle Dickinson. Photo / File

A generalised form of nostalgia-driven, anti-progress sentiment.

I can't help thinking (as someone who read an awful lot of dystopian fiction in my teenage years) that there is a connection between this public mood and the recent popularity of dystopian narratives in popular culture.

Michelle Dickinson (MD): I think the changing landscape of the media has had a lot to do with the increase of anti-intellectualism that I've seen recently.

Funding seems to be provided for reality television in much larger amounts than factual television shows so access to fair and representative information is hard to find.

I've also seen a huge rise in polarising documentaries on Netflix covering topics including vaccines and fluoride which do not fairly represent the science are leading people to believe that what they watch is true purely because it was from a documentary.

Heather Hendrickson (HH): I may have a slightly different perspective on this question. When my parents divorced my mother found a new community on the internet.

A deeply suspicious and angry community of disenfranchised people have been gathering and growing on-line for a long time and the most recent elections has seen this population rise to the surface.

They believe the world is led by a wealthy few, governments are their puppets and scientists are playthings of these toy governments.

It is a dark and irrational system of beliefs that include ideas like vaccination and fluoride being intended to kill or cripple the population and that terrible things are about to happen.

I think part of the reason this happens is the need for community in an increasingly confusing and complicated world.

Without community, people are susceptible to suggestions that might otherwise sound insane.

Massey University evolutionary microbiologist Dr Heather Hendrickson. Photo / File
Massey University evolutionary microbiologist Dr Heather Hendrickson. Photo / File

The anonymity of the internet also contributes to the perception that these things are true.

If they were being shouted on a street corner they would be less believable but the printed word, the authority and direct knowledge that are claimed by the perpetrators is incredibly alluring.

To what extent is this being driven by new political forces? Is social media also contributing?

CS: Social media has changed the game for all players.

It enables things like the Women's March to organise rapidly and effectively.

It also allows the US Administration to produce effective or wildly inflammatory pronouncements depending on your alignment.

NG: "New" political forces - I'm not so sure that the politics are new, but the ability of cynical politicians to diminish the importance of the truth is certainly enhanced by the general rise in public scepticism, I guess.

I'm wary of attempts to blame social media - but I do think that the ability people have to filter the news that they see through Facebook, for example (or perhaps rather the inability they have to see how it is being filtered for them?) plays a part.

MD: Social media bubbles are easy to live in, and the algorithms tend to keep us there.

I do believe that social media is exposing us to information that we already believe, and I'm also really concerned about how the Trump led government is threatening to delete and restrict publicly available climate data on government websites.

HH: Well, the political forces have been there for a long time but I think they were not able to organise the way they are now.

Social media gives them new heroes and strength in their shared beliefs.

Does it come with renewed concerns around racism and sexism?

CS: Diversity and equality are on-going complicated battles, so by the simple presence of a diversion, these battles become harder to win.

Growing up in the second half of the 20th Century one was instilled with a sense that "things" always got better.

It is a shock discover that this is not a universal truth.

Social media does provide a way of connecting marginalised groups both within themselves and those with shared challenges.

Watching the developments for the March for Science and the various mis-steps along the way shows how multi-faceted science, and its place in society, are.

One thing is clear, science has to be for and about all peoples, and it needs to be open to all if it is to succeed.

NG: Yes: nostalgia for the past (at best) and cynical protection of conservative interests (at worst) align to encourage both sexism and racism, and embolden those who, a decade ago, would have limited themselves to snarking about "PC culture".

HH: Racism and sexism are great ways of drawing in a group of people who are vulnerable to irrational thinking; the disenfranchised.

Are scientists themselves experiencing this first hand? With Trump coming to power, have any of you noticed any increased anti-science push-back directly from the public?

CS: I've not noticed this direct push-back from the public.

Extreme voices on social media have always been there and represent another problem.

It is hard to separate the question of anti-science and the public from a context where the US Government is denying climate change, deconstructing the US EPA, slashing funding to NOAA.

It is such a critical time for climate in terms of how our species chooses to respond.

I think we have seen nothing like the changes the US are experiencing.

But we only have to look across the Tasman to see echoes of these views and political developments.

I still get a cold shiver recalling an Australian politician holding up a lump of coal in Parliament saying it was harmless - during a weeks with record heatwave temperatures and political machinations to blame power outages on renewable energy.

The water and dairy debate in New Zealand has similar complexities.

NG: I think what worries me more than push-back (which I don't personally see a lot of) is an increasing divergence of conversations in the so-called "public" sphere.

It worries me more when people don't engage.

Is the reason that I don't see a lot of push-back simply that I've already outed myself as a card-carrying feminist?

Scientists took issue with former prime minister John Key dismissing concerns around freshwater pollution raised by Massey University ecologist Dr Mike Joy (pictured). Photo / File
Scientists took issue with former prime minister John Key dismissing concerns around freshwater pollution raised by Massey University ecologist Dr Mike Joy (pictured). Photo / File

MD: I have been in the US twice since Trump came into power, and many of my colleagues work in renewable energy research.

They are anticipating a significant drop in funding availability for alternative energy materials and new battery technology in light of their governments push back towards oil and coal.

Research is based on years of research, and cutting back funding now will have long term impacts on the future developments of sustainable materials for the future.

HH: My parents, my brothers (and both of my grandmothers) in the US all voted for Trump and my conservative family members in Utah and California are all delighted.

The strength of their convictions increased with the political win.

I can't discuss politics or science with most of my family these days.

It's actually too painful.

If we are seeing a trend or pattern, what is the best way to combat it - and how are we doing this?

CS: As a number of commentators have said, if some good is to be taken from these changes, the challenges are galvanising people and communities into response - into working out what they stand for.

So we combat it at a societal level where the public get a sense of the critical mass of people who value science and identify with aspects that work for them - then they vote. At the same time education of the next generation needs to bring them on-board.

NG: I think a big part of the puzzle is the inclusiveness - or even the perceived inclusiveness - of our education system.

I think that the focus on tertiary education as a ticket to a higher-paying job has undermined the confidence of the public in our educational institutions and the idea that knowledge is for everyone.

I'd like to see more thought given to the accessibility of tertiary ed to adults wanting to retrain or rejoin the workforce, and I'd like to see far less focus on the utilitarian value of education for students coming straight out of school, who haven't even had the opportunity to vote yet, let alone figure out what they want to do with the rest of their lives.

If we actually value knowledge in New Zealand, we should put our money where our mouths are, and enable everyone to participate in learning as a life-long activity.

MD: Communication is so important, we need more scientists to communicate what they do and why it's important to the public.

HH: We are not good at competing with this movement because science and rationality does not generally offer what people want or need and that is a sense of community and acceptance.

I have watched the flagging science march leadership implode over diversity and inclusion on twitter over the past months.

Science has an unfortunate tendency to view itself as beyond the public and beyond needing community.

This is a shortcoming that we will not easily be able to address.

It is unfortunate that many scientists make the mistake of thinking of themselves as better or smarter than others.

Insecurity drives the fear that they might risk losing authority by being welcoming or inclusive.

Don't mistake me, many scientists (male and female) are wonderful, warm, good hearted people who want great things for others.

That is not the general mind set however.

Science doesn't select for softies and it does not reward generosity or kindness.

What would be the over-arching statement that you'd like to see this march make?

CS: Science, and the need to understand things, is part of all of us - and part of all our futures.

NG: That science is for all of us.

MD: That science is filled with diverse, passionate, smart people who are working on solving important problems in the world and our success is driven by public support.

HH: Science needs everyone and everyone needs science.

- NZ Herald

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