The importance of using science to solve social problems (essay)

The Future of Science

Science is under attack. We have been hearing this for decades, and it is truer now than ever before. The Trump administration's attempt to obtain names of civil servants who attended climate-related meetings, the proposal to cut the EPA's research office by up to 42 percent (including the entirety of the Global Change Research Program), the overturning of policies that are grounded in scientific consensus and vital to our survival, the disdain with which Trump and his allies dismiss scientific evidence -- these all constitute clear assaults on science. In response, scientists are mobilizing to resist the Trump agenda, including with a proposed March for Science (previously called the Scientists' March on Washington).

If we strike while the iron is hot, this could be an opportunity not just to defend some abstract understanding of “science” but also to advance a much stronger vision of how science can serve the common good. Scientists and others in the STEM fields should make lasting commitments to stand in solidarity with the people of the world most harmed not just by the Trump administration but also by oppression and exploitation in all their forms.

The pursuit of scientific knowledge for the betterment of society has already long been shackled. Ask Marc Edwards. He's the Virginia Tech professor who worked with people in Flint, Mich., to expose the poisoning of their water supply. In an interview titled “Public Science Is Broken,” Edwards criticized the “perverse incentives” offered to faculty members and the risks involved in challenging the people who provide research funding. He concluded, “We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill -- pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index -- and the idea of science as a public good is being lost.”

That treadmill is not the science we need to defend. Nor is the science that profits agribusiness at the expense of impoverished farmers, torments villagers with the threat of drone strikes or otherwise privileges the acquisition of knowledge beneficial to corporate and military interests above that which supports human needs.

We should also be wary of defending science when it is imagined to be the province solely of an expert elite. We can respect the knowledge science produces while recognizing the many people from diverse social backgrounds who contribute to it: not just Ph.D.s but also farmers, members of environmental justice communities, people living with illnesses under research and many others.

The science we should rally to defend is that which people pursue with political consciousness for the benefits it brings to society and the planet. Lest anyone see that as too utilitarian, I would hasten to emphasize that charting the stars, learning the language of dolphins and pursuing a great many other subjects that bring us enlightenment qualify as benefiting society, provided we keep a sharp eye on how such knowledge is acquired and applied.

More than just defending such science, we must create a vibrant movement of STEM workers who see their survival and liberation as tied to the survival and liberation of poor people, people of color, people in the global South and others who are most vulnerable to the disasters our political and economic systems have produced.

This is hardly the first time scientists have organized to engage politically. In the United States today, the Union of Concerned Scientists is perhaps the most familiar organization that continues to promote, mainly through policy advocacy, what it calls “science for a healthy planet and a safer world.” Their work remains invaluable.

However, we should also recognize other groups in different times and places, many of which have adopted more activist approaches and an analysis more sharply focused on wresting science from the oppressive power structures of capitalism, racism, sexism, militarism and imperialism, and placing it in the service of social needs. The British Science and Society Movement of the late 1930s and 1940s, the Indian Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad founded in 1962, and the Philippine AGHAM: Advocates of Science and Technology for the People founded in 1999 are just a few examples.

The United States once had its own activist science organization, called Scientists and Engineers for Social and Political Action, better known as Science for the People. The original organization formed in 1969 out of the rising tide of opposition to the war in Vietnam. Although it folded in 1989, its members carried their cause forward. Former SftP members have been involved in improving health and safety for factory workers, mobilizing farming communities to document and resist pesticide exposure, working with communities in Eritrea and Malawi to develop sustainable energy technologies, researching and promoting agro-ecological approaches to farming in the United States and Latin America, and many other areas of politically engaged, socially conscious science.

The Science for the People movement is currently being revitalized; chapters are now forming on campuses at Columbia, Cornell and Emory Universities; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and the Universities of Massachusetts at Amherst, Pennsylvania and Tennessee at Knoxville. Numbers will no do doubt swell as the Trump administration helps make the stakes clearer to STEM workers and students across the country and the world.

In times of political crisis, some people may be tempted to embrace science as an apolitical force of reason. While science does offer reason, it does not do so in a political vacuum. We have political choices to make. We have to decide what kind of science is worth making and worth fighting for. We have to make that science. And we have to fight for it.

Sigrid Schmalzer is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and co-editor of Science for the People: Documents From America's Movement of Radical Scientists, forthcoming from University of Massachusetts Press.

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The new administration must recognize and support the job-creating power of science (essay)

The Future of Science

I spent a recent weekend interviewing blow-your-socks-off-smart applicants for my biology department’s Ph.D. program. I was uncertain how to respond to their need for reassurance about the future of American science. Since then, I’ve continued to reflect on what to say to the next generation of scientists, and what their collective decisions mean for the future of science and the economy in the United States. How do I reassure such bright young people as they decide whether to start their careers during an administration hostile not just to scientific integrity and independent inquiry, but seemingly to science itself?

How will we keep America’s reputation for scientific innovation if aspiring applicants to Ph.D. programs decide to forgo science or find that opportunities are reduced or constrained because of new federal policies? The anxiety I see in them is the first nick to the reputation of American universities and national laboratories -- regarded by most people as the best in the world -- a reputation that is now being harmed, as is the country’s economic competitiveness. Unless the statements and actions from the new administration change quickly, such weekends at universities across America this spring will, like our recent weekend, be overshadowed by dismay, disorientation and fear instead of the usual mix of optimism and excitement about future careers in scientific discovery.

Ordinarily, I am cautiously optimistic when confronted with potentially troublesome news, but continuing pronouncements from the Trump administration imposing gag orders and grant freezes on scientific government institutions have left me rather pessimistic, at least for the near future. Never in my 32 years as a university scientist have I experienced such high-level disregard from our government for expert information -- indeed, for facts of any kind -- and for the contributions of foreigners to the economic engines driven by scientific and technological research. This disregard, this disdain, for facts is troubling enough on its own. But for scientists it strikes at the very heart of our enterprise: working within constraints that require rigorous, logical evaluation of information before any conclusions are published or promoted.

A generous interpretation of what’s been occurring in these first months of the new administration is no longer possible. While it is normal for new administrations to issue gag orders for a temporary settling-in period so that new priorities for programs and external communications can be set, it is obvious that the new policies coming out of the Trump White House are lining up with base and baseless campaign rhetoric denying the strong scientific consensus on climate change, the values of environmental protection and the contribution of immigrants -- including Muslims -- to our nation’s scientific enterprise and economic innovation.

It is imperative that university faculty and the public are not distracted by the reckless stream of pronouncements coming from the White House. Behind the tweets, substantial long-term damage is quietly being inflicted on the integrity of science and therefore on the formulation of effective policies for improvements in medicine, technology and environmental management -- with negative long-term consequences for human welfare and our economy. Those potentially staggering changes are occurring by both omission and commission and at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, thanks to similarly minded congressional GOP leadership.

The strong bipartisan support for environmental protection that prevailed for most of the last 50 years -- which gained the greatest momentum under President Richard M. Nixon -- is giving way to the fictions that environmental quality is not linked to human health and that environmental improvements always come at the cost of economic activity. Of course, policy making requires always requires balancing competing priorities, but what is being set in motion by the new administration can hardly be described as a rebalancing of trade-offs.

For example, House Bill 589 would limit funds for climate research at the national laboratories where some of the world’s greatest advances occur in understanding how our planet’s climate works and relates to the extremes of weather that pose such an increasing threat to our coastal cities and infrastructure. Think of the experience of California in the last year -- switching from the worst drought in recorded history to some of the worst flooding.

House Bill 673 would prohibit American contributions to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has been a model of global scientific consensus building, and which has in turn fostered international policy cooperation vital to future human welfare. That same bill would prevent future contributions by the United States to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Green Climate Fund, which could be the most economically efficient way to adapt to changing climate globally. We can help vulnerable countries prepare for continuing climate change now, or we can deal with climate-driven conflicts and refugee crises later. The relentless civil war in Syria has its roots partly in drought-induced internal migrations of farmers and in food insecurity.

Closer to home, Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Rick Perry, U.S. secretary of energy, are the antitheses of the scientists, including Nobel laureates, who have led such agencies in past Republican and Democratic administrations. Pruitt, who spent much of his career as Oklahoma’s attorney general suing EPA, is dismissive of overwhelming data on the value to human health of EPA’s efforts to reduce air and water pollution. He and Trump have vowed to reverse the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

Furthermore, a combination of executive and congressional actions have demolished the U.S. Department of Interior’s Stream Protection Rule, as well as its rule to reduce leaks of methane from natural gas wells. Methane is a far more potent cause of climate change than carbon dioxide.

Finally, House Bill 861 would terminate the EPA entirely. Not only do these actions not add up to a recipe for clean air and clean water, which the president purports to support, but they also are in fact a direct assault on human health.

The administration’s disregard for science is also manifest in what has not been done. No one has been nominated for most senior positions usually occupied by scientists, including the science adviser to the president and the administrator of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (an agency that provides most of the weather data used by most news broadcasts in the country). At this same point in most recent administrations, most of these vital positions had been filled. Scientists are being omitted from decision making, even while decisions are rolling back the effectiveness and use of American science.

The lack of leadership on scientific and environmental issues couldn’t make China happier. Currently leading the United States in the use of renewable energies, Chinese competitors of American companies in renewable energy technology see new markets and expanded prosperity opening up to them. The same can be said for European competitors. What the Trump administration fails to realize is that technology doesn’t just build engines; the scientific enterprise is itself an engine that creates jobs from the lab to the land -- an economic multiplier with extraordinary reach. According to a recent National Science Foundation report, “Asia now accounts for 40 percent of global research and development, with China as the standout.” Given the trajectory of the current administration, the United States will not be first for much longer.

Good reputations take a long time to earn but can be destroyed quickly. That is true for individuals, institutions and countries. Intellectual capital and scientific programs take a long time to build. The current candidate pool for faculty jobs in my department has a higher than usual number of scientists with strong careers in national laboratories. The ongoing exodus of prominent, highly motivated scientists from national laboratories and other agencies portends a potentially quick decline for the quality of policy-relevant federal research.

So what should I have said to the worried Ph.D. candidates, and what will I say to the postdoctoral candidates from Australia, Canada and Germany who I am currently interviewing?

Do not let the relentless onslaught of tweets distract you. Do not respond in kind.

Keep your eyes and ears on the people who are being appointed and on what policies are actually being considered. Become engaged in your scientific society to amplify your scientific voice. Advocate for the value of scientific information.

Without anger, with patience and practicing humility, engage in civil discourse about what we scholars have been privileged to spend our lives learning: scientific practice is rigorous and winnowing; facts are hard won; science produces reliable information; and in the long run, human health and happiness depend on effective and efficient environmental protection. Encourage your representative to spend a few days breathing the air in Delhi or Beijing if they seem to doubt that.

Do not pretend that scientific information often leads clearly to any particular policy action. Rather, acknowledge that many other considerations are required in democratic decision making, but that scientists are not merely another special interest. Advocate for science and scientists to be appointed to high positions and sought out for their information and advice.

Make it clear that, ultimately, truth and civility must prevail.

David M. Lodge is the Francis J. DiSalvo Director of Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and a professor in Cornell’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

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Technology allows teaching in two places at once

Rutgers University is employing a technology that allows instructors to teach simultaneously at two campuses, reducing student commute times and classroom sizes.

Canadian College Is Victim of 'Cyberterrorism' Attack

A Canadian university has become the victim of an ongoing cyberterrorism attack, CBC News reported.

As of Friday, the University of Moncton had received nine “degrading and unwanted” emails from an unknown sender, according to the university’s president and vice chancellor, Raymond Théberge. The emails were sent out campuswide and reached about 2,000 students and staff.

The emails, which began arriving a little over a week ago, target a single female student in what some university officials are calling “revenge porn.” The emails include sexually explicit images.

Officials don’t believe university data or personal information have been compromised at any point, and their IT department is working to intercept new emails from the sender.

Some students at the University of Moncton asked that the campus email system be cut off until the perpetrator was found and held accountable. But Théberge said that would affect the institution’s nearly 4,000 students and would give the cyberattacker what he or she wants.

“If we were to freeze all emails, it will mean the perpetrator will have succeeded in stopping us from operating,” Théberge said. “This is a type of cyberterrorism, and it’s never a good thing to give in to these kinds of attacks.”

Police believe they have uncovered the identity of the culprit, but they have not yet found the person. One of the two servers they are following is connected with an IP address in Europe.

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Cornell students urge professors to hold off on laptop bans

At Cornell, student government wants professors in most courses to stay away from bans.


Program management market expands to the boot camp space

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Ed-tech companies are seeing a new market of program management developing as colleges get into the coding boot camp business.

An academic changes her mind about the value of big data (essay)

As a higher ed faculty member, my cognitive dissonance toward the term “big data” was palpable. My body would stiffen and my arms would fold when discussing the use of student data to increase enrollment or support academic performance.

Although my background in research instilled in me great respect for inquiry and data -- as did my childhood affinity for master observer Sherlock Holmes -- I was never at home with the idea of data with the term “big” thrown in front of it. Research, to me, was a very human endeavor, while “big data” represented something cold, calculated and ethically gray. Big data was the Moriarty to my Sherlock.

Within higher ed, I wasn’t in the minority with my cynicism. In a 2013 Educause report titled “Building Organizational Capacity for Analytics,” the authors identified a “substantial need for raising professional development, capacity building and the analytics IQ of institutional leadership and practitioners, at all levels.” Additionally, a recent Inside Higher Ed article by John Warner expressed skepticism of using aggregated data to predict individual behavior in education.

While I identify with the sentiment behind Warner’s data skepticism, I have come to understand in much greater detail the capabilities of data science and big data. And now that I’ve seen how data can empower institutions to match students to the right programs and provide individualized support through graduation, I am a huge proponent of increasing the use of big data in higher education.

My mind-set shift came care of a career change. After spending a few years working in higher ed, I moved to the private sector to help higher ed institutions increase enrollments, thereby helping students at scale. That move caused an immediate collision between my research-loving self and my dataphobic self, as now my work revolves around the insights of big data.

To reconcile these two seemingly disparate mentalities, I had to do some soul-searching. I quickly realized that my resistance to big data hinged on three things: my attachment to big data’s disreputable forward face, my ignorance of the breadth of big data’s capabilities and my misconception that big data could only create fixed, unchanging portraits of students.

Big Data Has a Bad Reputation

Big data’s public profile leaves much to be desired. As business executive Jonathan H. King and law professor Neil M. Richards pointed out in a 2014 Forbes article, “While there’s nothing particularly new about the analytics conducted in big data, the scale and ease with which it can all be done today changes the ethical framework of data analysis.” And we’ve seen this ethical dilemma play out for the worse in predatory marketing practices in a number of sectors, including higher ed. Once again: Moriarty.

Familiar questions about privacy, ownership and transparency of data are particularly salient in post-Edward Snowden America. Many privacy clauses lie buried in pages and pages of legal text, most of which consumers never read. With online activity becoming so ingrained in our daily lives, it is unreasonable to think that we can either: a) discontinue our online activities due to privacy concerns or b) fully attend to the myriad legal agreements our online activities make on a daily basis. If one wants to remain (or become) a contributing member of society, neither of these options is plausible.

Yet a simple truth underpins this ethical debate: big data itself is ethically neutral. As Debra Humphreys, vice president of strategic engagement at the Lumina Foundation, points out in Game Changers: Education and Information Technologies, “People define how technology is deployed, not the technologies that people invent.” Because people are at the crux of all ethical gray areas in big data, higher education institutions are confronted with the responsibility -- and opportunity -- to set the ethical standard for the utilization of data science.

Big Data Is Just That: Big

I remained unaware of the breadth of big data’s capabilities for quite some time. To visit examples put forth in Warner’s article, I too had caught word of studies that correlated things like first-semester credit loads and pre-emptive access to courses with student success. Yet we all know that correlation is not causation, and Warner rightly pointed out that “by focusing on questions of what (take 15 hours/access course early), we allow ourselves to keep from confronting the much more important questions of why.” This assertion lies at the crux of the misunderstanding of data science in education. We do have the capability to more narrowly get at the why behind student success on a much more individual level through data.

The truth is that data analytics capabilities have grown exponentially. Now millions of data points can be assessed in relation to all others. As Vernon Smith posited in Game Changers,

“A growing body of best practices and interventions that remove barriers to student progress and success exists, but those interventions would be better informed if they were based on what the research and actual behaviors indicate, rather than on anecdotal notions or experiences alone.”

In terms of research, these anecdotal notions come when they are founded on too little data. While sweeping interventions hinge on single data points like early access to online course materials, big data has grown the ability to concurrently assess millions of data points -- demographics, test scores, previous academic performance, employment, family size and learning styles, to name a few -- and potentially identify “at-risk” students. Holmes was right: “the world is full of obvious things which nobody by chance ever observes.” Leveraging big data to reveal those obvious things can help institutions paint a predictive picture of a student’s likelihood of success.

Data Analysis Is a Living Process

All that said, I wholeheartedly agree that predictive modeling alone is not the panacea to end all student failure. Neither is collecting real-time student data the only answer. The problem with many real-time indicators of student struggle is that once they surface, it’s often too late. Many students simply won’t raise their hands and say “help!” and it’s often too late to effectively assist them with red-flag indicators like not showing up to class or not logging onto a learning management system. Yet when we combine that predictive model with real-time indicators of student performance, you’ve got a living, individualized and iterative foundation for student support.

To maximize impact, we must view data in terms of iteration and interaction. By merging predictive models of student success with real-time indicators of student performance, we home in on a more individualized foundation for student success. Predictive models inform a baseline understanding for each student, then data on each student’s continuing exchanges with and performance at an institution can help inform interactions throughout the entirety of the student lifecycle. Only then can interventions hinge on a more holistic story than log-ins or credit hours alone can tell.

I am passionate about the mission of higher education, which is why I’m now doing what I do. Higher ed institutions fill a vital role in society and place value on information and high ethical standards. On the surface, higher education’s commitment to research, teaching and serving the public seems in opposition to the unethical applications of big data to simply maximize profits. Yet if we focus on transparency, customization and innovation, we can employ big data to more fully pursue our mission and goals. In this way, we’ll say to our students, prospects and stakeholders, “You know my methods, Watson.”

Danielle Caldwell is a former faculty member and current adjunct professor in Westminster College’s master of strategic communication program. After working with Westminster College and Southern Methodist University, she moved to Helix Education to help colleges and students at scale. Helix Education provides colleges and universities a comprehensive suite of technology and services to power data-driven enrollment growth.

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IT is behind flattening of higher education's wage premium, study finds

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The wage gap between college degree holders and workers without a degree has not grown in recent years, and a new study says the culprit is information technology's displacement of "routine" jobs.

Rutgers faculty union urges faculty members to boycott new email system

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St. Norbert College's 'computerless' computer lab shows impact of BYOD in higher ed

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After realizing virtually all students bring their own laptops to campus, Wisconsin liberal arts college opened an unorthodox computer lab.


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