Announcing the 2018 UCS Science Defenders

Published Dec 6, 2018

As Voltaire wrote in the 18th century, “It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong.”

When it comes to science, among other topics, the current administration has been wrong about much: from climate change and environmental safeguards to storm recovery and risks to public health. It has also been quick to punish those who speak up. The Union of Concerned Scientists is proud to announce the 2018 Science Defenders—five individuals and groups who have taken a stand for science even in this hostile climate.

Federal Scientists, including AFGE Local 704

Most government scientists are charged with protecting public health and safety—but carrying out this mission has often been difficult in this administration. A UCS survey of federal scientists earlier this year found that half of all respondents agreed or strongly agreed that political interests were interfering with their agencies’ ability to base policy and decisions on science. We wish to honor government scientists who have persevered, driven by their commitment to serve the public good. Some have carried out their work quietly, waiting out the administration. And some have fought back, even when it’s been risky.

In the latter category, UCS recognizes in particular Michael Mikulka, president, and Nicole Cantello, chief steward, of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 704, representing employees of the Environmental Protection Agency in six Midwestern states. Through the union, they’ve rallied members to fight back against budget cuts and deregulatory efforts, and presented a united front against harmful proposed EPA policies under Administrators Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler.

“What we ask our members to do,” says Mikulka, “is empower themselves through the union to take a stand. As federal employees, we serve and protect the public. When that’s not happening, it takes more than one person to do the right thing and speak out about it.”

Ciencia Puerto Rico

Ciencia Puerto Rico is a network of nearly 9,000 scientists, students, educators, and others who collaborate on initiatives to improve science education and expand access to science for everyone in Puerto Rico. The organization was vital for many Puerto Rican scientists and students in STEM living on the US mainland to stay in touch and help with rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Maria hit the island in September 2017—and it’s kicked off a new initiative to bring science and scientists into the reconstruction process.

The Puerto Rico Science and Policy Action Network, or PR-SPAN, was launched at a CienciaPR summit one year after the storm, made up of science and health professionals on the island and abroad volunteering to use their expertise to engage on public policies affecting Puerto Rico. Cancer biologist and CienciaPR member Adrián Rivera-Reyes was there for its creation. “It’s my hope that PR-SPAN becomes a go-to resource for people in Puerto Rico, especially when it comes to legislation at the local and federal level,” he says.

Co-creator and AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow Zulmarie Perez Horta agrees. “We want to build a bridge between the scientific community, policy makers and the general public,” she says. “We’re interested in contributing to the reconstruction of the island by giving scientists a seat at the table.”

David Daggett

As a technical fellow at aircraft manufacturer Boeing, David Daggett worked with climate scientists in environmental technology to make cleaner engines and fuels. He was on the team responsible for the first flight powered by biofuels in 2008. When President Trump appointed a climate change denier to lead the EPA, Daggett, who’d retired, was appalled—then motivated.

“I wanted to see if I could help bring science back into policymaking,” he says. First, he co-organized the 2017 March for Science in Olympia, WA, where 5,000 marchers turned out. He stepped up his involvement with the UCS Science Network, testifying at the Washington State Capitol in favor of clean fuels legislation. Then, he decided to run for the Washington House of Representatives.

“I’d never thought about running for office before,” he says. “I was an engineer. But it’s becoming more important for us to counter the bias against science that’s creeping into the government.”

Daggett won his primary, and came within two percent of winning the race. “I realized that politicians are just regular folks,” he says of his experience as a candidate. “I definitely encourage other engineers, scientists, and people in STEM to consider running for office.”

Evelyn Valdez-Ward

A diligent student who wanted to become a scientist, Evelyn Valdez-Ward never doubted she would attend college. But when she began filling out applications, she learned a painful truth: her family was undocumented. Valdez-Ward wasn’t eligible for federal financial aid. She might not be allowed to attend some colleges. And she and her family could be deported.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—the Obama initiative that protects young people in similar circumstances from deportation, and provided the opportunity to apply for work permits—allowed Valdez-Ward to begin her academic career in biology despite her status. Today, Valdez-Ward is a PhD student researching soil microbes at the University of California, Irvine.

When President Trump issued an executive order revoking DACA, Valdez-Ward waited for a strong response from the scientific community, and heard little. She took the bold step of publishing an op-ed in Science, telling her story and advocating on behalf of other DACA recipients.

“I chose to stand up and fight for my rights to science,” she says. “I want people to know that the 11 million undocumented people in our country contribute in so many invaluable ways. There is instability and uncertainty. But we can’t give up. We are worthy. We belong.”

500 Women Scientists was founded as a pledge to support science and scientists in the wake of President Trump’s election. An AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow, Dr. Maryam Zaringhalam signed on and didn’t think much more about it—until she learned about the administration’s travel ban while on a trip to visit family in Iran. “I felt hopeless and helpless,” she says. “I asked 500 Women Scientists if I could get more involved.”

Dr. Zaringhalam is now among 500 Women Scientists’ leaders; today, the organization has about 300 chapters worldwide that hold events, work on local science policy issues, mentor young people, and more. Organizations like 500 Women Scientists are important because scientists must bring their whole selves into their work, Dr. Zaringhalam says.

“If you're somebody who comes from an underrepresented background, you're never just a scientist,” she says. “That’s a privilege afforded only to a select few. What we’re advocating for is changing the idea of what a scientist looks like, and how she can use her expertise.”

More representation within the sciences can only help build credibility, she says. “We can attract evangelicals, people of color, women,” she says. “And build trust within communities that might have been skeptical.”

Honorable mention

The 1,600 members of the high-energy physics community worldwide who signed onto this statement. When a well-known theorist used a CERN presentation to claim that women are less prevalent in particle physics because they're inherently less capable, not only did these scientists reject this stance on moral and ethical grounds, but went further to disprove, point by point, each of his assertions.

Congratulations to each of our 2018 Science Defenders! Who do you think stood up for science in 2018? Tweet to @UCSUSA to let us know.

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