News reporter’s notebook

Perspectives on marches for science

“No one is anti-science here,” says MIT professor

The recent March for Science and People’s Climate March have generated heated discussion about the efficacy and purpose of such demonstrations. A member of the Editorial Board interviewed MIT professors for their perspectives on the debate.

“Surfactants: they’re at the interface, mixing in between the polar and nonpolar,” Professor Linda Griffith, S.E.T.I. Professor of Biological and Mechanical Engineering and Director of the Center for Gynepathology Research at MIT, likes to tell her thermodynamics students.

Griffith wants to be a surfactant; that is, she “wants to find the good to every side.” For Griffith, to march for “science” would go against that. She believes her job as a scientist and an engineer is to see her science applied in the real world, to engage with the people she serves. For example, every Sunday, Griffith goes to church and engages with the women there: she tells them what stem cells are, how they work, and so on.

This is not to say that Griffith does not believe in marching for a cause. Griffith recently participated in the fourth Worldwide Endometriosis March. In her eyes, people can focus on “the shameful fact that so little is known about diseases such as endometriosis,” as an alternative to marching for science. Adenomyosis, which appears at alarmingly high rates in endometriosis cases, has only 2,184 PubMed articles listed under its name. By contrast, the database contains 22,297 articles for erectile dysfunction.

“There is huge debate on whether or not to support pro-choice ideals, and people should also recognize that an important part in allowing a woman to choose is to make sure she can reproduce. You are robbing women of their reproductive rights by letting these debilitating diseases affect their fertility,” Griffith says. “That is why I march. Every day is a march for women.”

For others, it’s also imperative to acknowledge research funding cuts in non-science fields. Professor Deborah Fitzgerald, Cutten Professor of the History of Technology Program in Science Technology, and Society at MIT, notes: “As a historian, I am of course very concerned about the threat to shut down the National Endowment for the Humanities, which funds humanities research. But anyone who cares about museums, literature, historic sites, and exhibits should also be worried.”

Professor S.P. Kothari, the Gordon Y. Billard Professor of Accounting and Finance at the Sloan School of Management, suggests that the real topic of debate is the role that the government should play in funding our research. 

Kothari feels that marches can be better conducted to focus on this topic. “Where I think marches should do a better job, if I were them, is to explain...why a push for private sector funding would not be successful. In economics, we talk about the argument called market failure where certain research benefits the society at large, but it doesn’t benefit directly the companies. Therefore, if you push funding to the private sector, then the private sector won’t invest in that sort of research as much.”

“However, whether the current level of funding is optimal or sub-optimal is not totally obvious to me.”

Commenting on the debate surrounding international accords to reduce carbon consumption, Kothari said, “The US burns about one billion tons of coal. China used to burn one billion tons in 2000; it now burns four billion tons today. So whatever little changes you want to make in the US, it’s a rounding error compared to what China and other countries do.”

Efforts like the Paris Agreement are useless, Kothari said, “unless you tell us how we are going to coordinate with 190 countries and convince China and India and other countries in saying, ‘Don’t grow because you are harming the planet.’ I’m not a climate denier, and still, I would come in with this position.”

Kothari suggests the solution is to “collect some companies to invest in research in clean energy” with the ultimate goal of making clean energy cheaper than carbon-based energy.

“No one is anti-science here,” he said. “I think we are all pro-science, whether they are Republicans or Democrats. Where the difference is: what is the best way of funding?”

“But instead, the debate gets painted as, ‘Well, these are climate deniers. These are anti-science people.’ That’s not what it is. So what I try to say is, ‘Don’t try to make yourself look good by saying others are bad. That’s not a good strategy. Tell us why you are good in your own right.”