Announcing 2017's Science Defenders

Got Science? | December 2017

To take a stand for science is always an act of bravery, but it has special resonance today. President Trump and his administration have imposed a chilling environment that sidelines science and scientists, as they wipe away references to climate change from federal websites, favor special interests over public health and safety, and ignore and deny evidence and facts.

The Union of Concerned Scientists is proud to announce our Got Science? Defenders for 2017: five people and groups who have refused to be silent.

Bethany Wiggin: Keeping Federal Data Safe

The day after President Trump’s election, Bethany Wiggin was discussing the potential reverberations with her students at the University of Pennsylvania.

“I remember the moment,” she says. “We wondered aloud how vulnerable environmental and climate data would be under the new administration. Half the students said, ‘I never thought about that.’ The other half said, ‘Oh my God.’”

Wiggin and her students within the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities, which she co-founded, began working on a survey for federal employees to classify the value and vulnerability of their data. Soon the project expanded in scope to include data preservation. Then people across the country began asking how they could help.

“It just grew from there,” she says.

Wiggin is one of many collaborators who launched the DataRefuge project, a national effort to preserve federal data that has attracted scores of volunteers to help archive climate and environmental data. Wiggin says the project aims to address larger questions about data preservation and literacy over time.

“Good archiving practices are not political,” she says. “They’re about preserving our digital heritage for future knowledge.”

Robyn Wilson: “Mr. Pruitt Is Welcome to Fire Me”

Robyn Wilson hadn’t yet finished her three-year term on the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board when she received an email informing her she was no longer needed. A new policy implemented by Administrator Scott Pruitt banned board service—which entails providing analysis and recommendations on the science behind proposed regulations—for anyone receiving EPA funding for their research. Wilson has an EPA grant.

“It makes no sense,” she says. “The policy claims conflict of interest for a group who are the least likely to have conflicts of interest.”

Frustrated by the absurdity, Wilson replied to the email and refused to resign.

“The email was from someone with no authority at the agency,” says Wilson. “The least they could do is have Mr. Pruitt send me a letter. For him to not go on paper backing up this policy that he claims is appropriate—if it’s so great, then he should fire me.”

Wilson hasn’t heard from the EPA since, but she feels good about her decision.

“There are some of us who are fairly protected,” she says. “So it’s our job to stand up and say this is wrong.”

Xiuhtezcatl Martinez: Fighting for His Generation

At age 12, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez became a plaintiff in a landmark lawsuit against the US government filed by a group of children making the case that their constitutional rights have been violated by federal inaction on climate change. Now 17—and a rapper, author, and frequent public speaker—Martinez is preparing to testify on behalf of his generation early next year.

“We’re just regular kids,” says Martinez. “But we also have these impactful stories about how we’re already seeing the effects of climate change.”

If the plaintiffs win their case, Martinez says, the federal government will be required to create and implement a climate recovery plan. Their suit has received several important legal victories since it was filed, overcoming a “motion to dismiss” this summer, which also set a trial date for February 2018.

“I’m grateful to be part of this,” Martinez says. “The lawsuit is so much bigger than any of us plaintiffs. It’s a beautiful thing to have this opportunity.”

Beto Lugo-Martinez: Clearing the Air in Southern California

Imperial County, California, grows much of the nation’s food—and has some of its most polluted air.

“We’re rural,” says Beto Lugo-Martinez, who works for the nonprofit Comite Civico del Valle. “But we have one of the highest rates of asthma in California: one in every five kids.”

Diesel trucks pass through bearing cargo to and from nearby Mexico. Cars line up at the border idling for hours. And agricultural emissions contribute to elevated levels of particulate in the air. Government monitors installed to test air quality were sparse, says Lugo-Martinez, and the data they collected was often inaccessible to residents.

“We needed more data. And we needed to know how we could use this data to move policy,” says Lugo-Martinez. His innovative solution: to personally help install and maintain 40 low-cost air quality monitors throughout Imperial County—and teach residents how to use the data they collect.

The monitors help people minimize their exposure to pollution, he says. And they provide data that helps make a case for cleaner air with elected officials.

“Imperial County residents are community scientists,” Lugo-Martinez says. “They’re the experts: the people who live and breathe in the most polluted parts of California.”

Attendees of the People’s Climate March and the Marches for Science: Power to the People

For two consecutive Saturdays last spring, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to advocate for sound environmental policies, federal funding for science and scientists, and evidence-based policies for the public good. More than one million participants joined Marches for Science in cities around the world; in the US, marchers showed up from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City to Washington, DC. The following Saturday, which was President Trump’s 100th day in office, more than 200,000 people flooded the streets of Washington, DC, for the People’s Climate March, which drew attention to a united coalition of labor, faith, indigenous, science, and frontline communities demanding action on climate change.

Many participants in both events had never participated in a protest; some scientists and science-lovers had never considered joining a movement to stand up for science. But they took to their new role as activists with conviction, participating in a remarkable week of action between the two marches by contacting and meeting with elected officials, and carrying the momentum into ongoing advocacy at home. In 2017, we wished to recognize this mobilization to underscore that each of us has a role in defending science.

Congratulations to all our 2017 Science Defenders! Who do you think stood up for science in 2017? Tweet to @UCSUSA to let us know.