This is Science Thanks

Published Nov 29, 2023

Need some pumpkin pi to go with that leftover turkey? Jess highlights her favorite reasons to be thankful for science in this season of gratitude.


The holiday of Thanksgiving was last week here in the United States. The main purpose of the modern iteration of the holiday is to express gratitude for good fortune, good food, good friends, and good family…after you’re done arguing with your favorite relatives while binging copious amounts of turkey, potatoes, and pie. Joking aside, Thanksgiving can be a good time to call attention to the positive things in life that are often pushed aside by our day-to-day struggles.

This Thanksgiving was a small one for me, but it was extra special as it was my teenager Kaz’s first time coming home after his first few months of college. That very pointed opportunity to reflect had me thinking about things to be thankful for outside of the usual abundance of delicious Thanksgiving foods.

I’m your host Jess Phoenix, and this is Science Thanks.

I have been a scientist for 15 years, and I’ve spent the last one here at the Union of Concerned Scientists. If my work was strictly scientific in nature working here would have been an odd choice, since my field of volcanology isn’t something UCS touches. Since I’ve spent a good deal of my time as a scientist running a nonprofit research organization, communicating complex scientific topics to non-scientists through media like television, talks, and writing, and working to energize STEM students and professionals to participate in this country’s political processes, my role here makes far more sense.

I know many of our newer listeners might not know much about the Union of Concerned Scientists. For starters, why are we so concerned, and what exactly are we concerned about? Going further, what are we even doing about our concerns? It’s all well and good to be upset about a variety of current issues - both scientific and otherwise - but without doing the hard work to actually improve our reality it’s just so much impotent hand-wringing.

So the first thing I’m thankful for IS the Union of Concerned Scientists and similar organizations that are working to identify, illuminate, and solve problems in the realm of science that have impacts far beyond the scientific community. UCS was founded in response to an existential, global threat: nuclear weapons. In 1969, a group of scientists and students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology formed UCS to address what they saw as the government’s misuse of science. The Vietnam War was in full swing, and the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught on fire yet again due to the extreme amounts of pollution in its waters. The scientists and students involved saw an opportunity to make real change and use science as a force to better the world.

Here are the 5 proposals that sparked the flame that would become something larger than any one scientist:

  1. To initiate a critical and continuing examination of governmental policy in areas where science and technology are of actual or potential significance.

  2. To devise means for turning research applications away from the present emphasis on military technology toward the solution of pressing environmental and social problems.

  3. To convey to our students the hope that they will devote themselves to bringing the benefits of science and technology to mankind and to ask them to scrutinize the issues raised here before participating in the construction of destructive weapons systems.

  4. To express our determined opposition to ill-advised and hazardous projects such as the ABM system, the enlargement of our nuclear arsenal, and the development of chemical and biological weapons.

  5. To explore the feasibility of organizing scientists and engineers so that their desire for a more humane and civilized world can be translated into effective political action.

Scientists had been frightened away from the political arena by the government ostracization of physicist and key architect of the atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, in 1954. Even today many scientists hesitate to engage in any sort of visible public action that could be viewed as political.

Nearly 70 years after Oppenheimer’s push from grace the silencing and exclusion of scientific voices from political, legislative, and social discussions remains an effective way of advancing unscientific, harmful agendas that enrich corporate or private interests at the expense of the environment, people, and our planet. In the years since its founding, UCS has expanded its initial efforts to encompass five main program areas. By declining government and corporate funds, UCS maintains independence for our scientists to do the crucial work of using evidence to shape public policies. And yes, I’m thankful for that.

Ok, so now let’s talk programs. The Earth’s climate is changing, with the human exploitation of fossil fuels serving as the biggest driver of the current change. UCS’s Climate and Energy program is realistic in its acknowledgement that dealing with climate change will be difficult, but hope and solutions exist. We CAN dramatically cut carbon emissions while also adapting to the changes that are already here. Climate resilience is the name of the game. We must quickly and equitably modernize our energy grid, transportation systems, and agricultural system to use greater amounts of renewable energy.

I’m thankful that UCS has worked for decades to research and publicize the fossil fuel industry’s very public and intentional deceptions about their products. I’m also thankful that analyses from UCS scientists are being used to help communities both here and abroad take fossil fuel companies to court and hold them accountable for the very real damages caused by their deliberate deceit of the world. I know the image of scientists as nerds is pretty well embedded, so just imagine the most scientific Avengers (Hulk, Iron Man, and Shuri’s Black Panther) wearing glasses and lab coats while they punch a fossil fuel-guzzling Thanos to really get a good visual of the power of scientific data in this fight.

Just in 2023 alone, UCS released a mapping tool that lets the public see how many people in the US are under extreme weather alerts during our annual “danger season,” used evidence to show how 88 fossil fuel and cement companies’ emissions are responsible for over a third of all wildfire burn areas in North America since 1986, and helped get Congress to pass the FLOODS and PRECIP Acts which will modernize critical federal rainfall data…which will help communities prepare and become more resilient during extreme rain and flood events. That’s a lot to be thankful for in my book.

Since 1990, the Clean Transportation program at the Union of Concerned Scientists has been working to transform transportation in the United States. That work is essential if we want to meet our climate goals and start to repair damages to communities of color and low-income communities, both of which have been disproportionately harmed by racist and inequitable practices like redlining and cross-cutting heavy traffic corridors. Transportation accounts for 80% of the 20 million barrels of oil the US burns every day. While trucks and buses make up just 10% of road traffic daily, most are diesel-powered and pump out 26% of all vehicle emissions. This hurts those same communities I mentioned before more than whiter, more affluent places.

It's not just enough to transition to renewable energy-fueled transportation, however. I’m thankful that UCS is not only working to promote zero emission vehicles and push adoption of strict vehicle emissions standards, but also analyzing ways to reduce harmful battery material mining practices. UCS is also advocating for equitable transitions for refinery workers away from petroleum-based fuels. Policies we push for must be backed by both evidence and understanding of all of the factors in play.

Next up is our Food and Environment program. Without adequate protections for our food we can’t achieve much as a society, let alone hope to better our situation. UCS recognizes that decades of deregulation in the food industry means that a few large companies hold far too much power in our lives as food consumers, and in the lives of farmers and farm workers. I was surprised to learn that just 4 companies control 85% of the US beef market, and another 4 companies control 75% of the nitrogen fertilizer market. Of course, with major agricultural production comes major pollution. Again, lack of effective regulations and enforcement means rivers, streams, and even the Gulf of Mexico bear evidence of agricultural pollution.

Ethical farming practices are a social and environmental justice issue. To use an appropriate expression, UCS is working to shift from an all-carrot (that is, all voluntary and incentive-driven) system to one that includes the stick as well, which means beefier regulations and enforcement of those regulations. The Union of Concerned Scientists knows that food security and protection of the environment equals good national security. I’m thankful our scientists have been urging the Biden administration to help pass the strongest version of the 2023 Food and Farm Bill possible, so that access to healthy food from clean, ethical sources is a reality for as many Americans as possible. UCS has already started work to ensure the next Food and Farm Bill, in 2028, shifts from a climate resilience focus to one dedicated to ensuring climate action.

Our Global Security program here at UCS is dedicated to preventing the build up of nuclear weapons and remediating environments and compensating people affected by nuclear weapons in the United States.

Global tensions are high, and conflicts between nuclear-armed states carry an additional threat of nuclear weapon discharge – either accidental or intentional.

I’m very thankful that UCS scientists are researching China’s ability to add to its nuclear arsenal, as well as raising awareness of United States plans to spend a trillion dollars to completely rebuild every piece of its nuclear arsenal. The US is also planning to produce 80 new fissile cores, called plutonium pits, which could lead to acceleration of the burgeoning arms race with China and Russia.

UCS contributed valuable insight about past and future nuclear weapons issues coordinated with the release of the movie Oppenheimer last summer. I’m so thankful for UCS highlighting the real-world impacts of nuclear weapons testing that are still being felt today by communities “downwind” of test sites in the American West. Nuclear weapons are here for the present time, at least, and the Union of Concerned Scientists is committed to making sure that the very real nuclear threat remains loud and clear in the public conscience.

The last program area here at UCS is one very near and dear to me. When I ran for Congress in 2018, I did so because science was under attack from politicians on the national and international stage. My promise was to bring evidence-based policy making to the House of Representatives, and hopefully to the forefront of American consciousness. Science cannot remain silent in the face of attack, and scientists need to have a voice in the political conversations that determine how we’ll handle big-picture issues like climate change, food security, growing populations, and more. We ignore science at our peril, and it is not enough for us to simply be scientists, locked in our labs or trekking through remote wilderness, searching for answers through the end of magnifying glasses or telescopes.

The Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists does just that: it centers science in the lens of our democracy, urging STEM professionals and students to overcome the decades of antipathy towards political activism in the scientific community and engage by voting. UCS is using science to demonstrate how elections can be freer and fairer by instituting science-based changes to voting and increasing voter engagement, and by using scientific software to determine legislative district maps are fair. Scientific integrity will be at the forefront of UCS efforts for this election cycle, as well as continued work to identify and counter disinformation with factual, scientifically based information.

Science is not done in a vacuum. It’s done by real people…real people who are citizens and residents of the United States of America. What scientific research gets funded and listened to depends on having scientifically literate legislators and ensuring that scientists in the government workforce are free to perform and publicize their research. Who we elect matters, and who turns out to vote matters. STEM students have historically voted at rates lower than students with other majors, and UCS will continue efforts to improve STEM voter turnout. UCS has created Science Rising, a nationwide nonpartisan movement fighting for science, justice, and equity in our democracy.

Science Rising supports and inspires the scientific and academic community to participate in our democracy, mobilize our peers and community, and counter the disinformation that pollutes our elections. UCS is working to set a record for student and STEM voter turnout in 2024, and I’m thankful I’m part of the effort to stop science from being silenced.