Who Stood Up for Science in 2014? Announcing This Year’s “Got Science” Champions

Got Science? | December 2014

While partisanship and rancor have polluted public discussions about science at the national level, an inspiring number of scientists, community groups, and even comedians stood up for science over the past year. To laud their efforts and recognize what they accomplished, here are the 2014 “Got Science” Champions:

Andrew Whelton: Driving science into the West Virginia water crisis

Andrew Whelton is an environmental engineer at Purdue University. When Freedom Industries spilled chemicals into West Virginia’s Elk River in January, 300,000 people suddenly found themselves without access to safe tap water. Whelton drove his student and faculty team nearly 900 miles to help and they did so as volunteers, without the promise of funding for their work.

The public health crisis was immediate: schools and businesses were closed and people were reporting illnesses related to the spill. There was also an information crisis. While federal and state emergency responders swung into action, their water safety advice left many residents confused.

Whelton and his group teamed up with local nonprofits to test people’s water. They found that the recommended method for flushing a home’s pipes wasn’t helping: instead, it was making people ill. After modifying the method, his team spent days on the ground flushing water pipes and educating residents.

West Virginians took notice. The state’s governor, Earl Ray Tomblin (D), tapped Whelton to develop a new scientific investigation, including independent testing of the toxic chemical. Whelton says his student and faculty team continues to make important discoveries, which he takes care to make accessible to local residents by posting information online, offering public talks and one-on-one discussions.

In the middle of a crisis, we need reliable information. That’s especially true when it comes to chemical accidents and Whelton and his team selflessly stepped in to provide it.

Karen Wolk Feinstein: Helping grandmothers act as science ambassadors

Karen Wolk Feinstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, was inspired to create a local chapter of Grandmother Power after seeing an exhibit about the group at a museum. She also knew which issue she wanted to focus on: the need to vaccinate against HPV, the human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted disease linked to cervical and throat cancer.

Many grandparents remember what it was like before vaccines freed us from polio, measles and other diseases. Now Feinstein is working with grandmothers to help them educate their children and grandchildren about the benefits of vaccinating children against HPV before they become sexually active.

“It’s kind of tragic that we’ve had this big breakthrough and people aren’t aware,” she says.

Feinstein sympathizes with parents who might find it difficult to prioritize getting their children the vaccine given everything else on their plates. She says many parents also assume their children will become sexually active much later than they actually do.

Feinstein expects that grandmothers, with their credibility, wisdom and experience, can give parents the extra push they need to vaccinate their children. Indeed, they may prove to be a key ally for scientists who want to prevent new infections.

David Hastings: Proving politicians don’t need to be scientists to understand climate impacts

This year, politicians’ favorite attempt to avoid answering questions on climate change seemed to be: “I’m not a scientist”—as though that somehow disqualified them from having to address the issue.

One of the elected officials ducking climate-related questions in this way was Florida Governor Rick Scott who leads a state on the frontline of climate-driven rising sea level. Thankfully, Florida is also home to scores of scientists who study climate change. One of them, David Hastings, a marine science professor at Eckerd College, joined with several other researchers to respond directly to Gov. Scott. “We are scientists,” Hasting and his colleagues wrote, “and we would like the opportunity to explain what is at stake for our state.”

The effort paid off. Gov. Scott agreed to meet with Hastings and four other climate scientists and, afterward, he changed his tune, at least somewhat. Instead of arguing with other politicians about whether or not climate change is real, Gov. Scott has started arguing about solutions.

By speaking (scientific) truth to power, Hastings and his colleagues helped align the political discussion in Florida with scientific reality.

Kathy Miller: Giving students the facts about human-caused climate change

Misinformation about science creeps into our public discourse from many quarters but nowhere is it more insidious than when it winds up in our children’s textbooks.

Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, helped take on the issue when several major publishers included misleading information that cast doubt about climate science in the texts they submitted before the Texas State Board of Education. Miller’s group teamed with the National Center for Science Education and with leading climate scientists from Texas including Camille Parmesan and Katherine Hayhoe, to fight back with a petition campaign that garnered some 116,000 signatures.

Thanks to the effort, two major textbook publishers—Pearson and McGraw-Hill—agreed to remove passages that inaccurately cast doubt on climate science.

By standing up to an educational system that too often emphasizes the demands of politicians instead of the findings and recommendations of credentialed scientists, Miller helped ensure that kids learn the facts on this vital issue.

Celebrity Champion John Oliver: Curing misinformation with laughter

Late night comedy shows aren’t usually known for their scientific acumen. But John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight on HBO has delivered some especially devastating and hilarious critiques of powerful institutions and people who ignore scientific risks.

One of his most popular segments – with more than 4.5 million views on YouTube – lambasted televised debates about established climate science. As Oliver noted, 97 percent of relevant scientific papers find that climate change is happening and caused by human activities. Televised debates in which a science communicator squares off against a contrarian make it look more like a 50-50 proposition, he argued.

To powerfully demonstrate how silly these debates are, Oliver staged a “statistically representative climate change debate.” In it, he pitted Bill Nye “The Science Guy” and 96 scientists against three contrarians in a crowded studio. As the scientists all spoke at once, Oliver yelled, “I can’t hear you over the weight of scientific evidence! This whole debate should not have happened!”

It was funny, but did it change minds? It’s hard to say. But since Oliver’s segment aired, the three major broadcast networks and CNN have not aired any misleading debates about climate science.

We can all stand up for science

Science is the most powerful tool we have for understanding the world around us. This year’s “Got Science” Champions show us how to put it to work to make a difference.

Who else do you know who stood up for science in 2014?

Who most inspired UCS supporters?

Last week we asked UCS supporters to share with us which 2014 Got Science? champion’s story most inspired them. More than 4,000 members weighed in to support all our great champions this year—but it was Kathy Miller’s story about keeping misinformation about global warming out of Texas schoolbooks that resonated most with UCS supporters. Thanks to everyone who shared their opinions with us!

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