Marching for Science

Let me introduce myself. I’m an American scientist living and working in the UK. I’ve been here since 2012, so I’ve witnessed the Scottish referendum and the Brexit vote. During the Ref, I watched my Scottish friends struggle with the decision -to separate deep feelings of nationalist pride from their incredible openness to others, to parse disinformation on both sides about economic consequences and EU status. The night of the Ref, my friends stayed up to count votes or watch the results. I didn’t join in – I had work to do. I couldn’t vote. Given how personal the decision was, I didn’t want to intrude. But I felt the uncertainty on that September night. Would we all wake up to a fundamentally changed Scotland?

Relief and disappointment stuck in the air a month later at an Aberdeen concert when a furious Glaswegian playing Spanish guitar told us all where to get off, as only a Glaswegian can. I laughed sympathetically along with the crowd. The vote hadn’t affected me personally, and besides, it was done and decided. But the passion behind his words was clear: The push for independence was far from over.

When Brexit came around two years later, I was surprised. How often does a country need to hold referenda on state membership, anyway? The British penchant for neologisms made the vote somehow comical. I couldn’t vote, but I educated myself on the history of the movement, the arguments for and against. In Scotland, Remain was the predominant voice. Again, there was the feeling of uncertainty. But we all went to sleep remembering the Ref: sound and fury signifying nothing.

The next morning, my co-workers were in shock. The Scots felt alienated, disconnected from reality, disenfranchised. The Europeans worried about their jobs, their studies, their families, their futures. They all received tailored, reassuring letters from the Principal of the University. I didn’t receive a letter, but I didn’t need one. The vote hadn’t affected me personally. I gave my condolences and went to the lab.

 I’m an American scientist living in the UK. I went home to vote in November. I had learned about absentee ballots destroyed in a fire in North Carolina, and the fact that expat votes aren’t counted until after election day. After Brexit, I didn’t want to take any chances. I put my experiments on hold and flew home. I voted early. I pointed to Brexit and exhorted everyone I knew to vote, to bring a friend to the booths. I knew that feeling of uncertainty.

I didn’t sleep that night. I thought about everyone who would wake up to this new, alternate reality. I thought about the weddings I’d attended for dear friends who might lose the rights they’d fought so hard for. I thought about friends who faced racism daily, even in the protected environment of graduate school. I thought about my sister, at a party when she realized her friends believe women are biologically inferior to men because our brains are smaller and we’re ‘hormonal’.

I’m an American scientist. These days, when people find out I’m American, they all want to know about Trump. When people ask, I pretend to be Canadian. It’s tedious to rehash with strangers who like Trump’s “plain speech” but don’t want to hear about how almost every word is a documented lie. It’s hard to argue with them. He’s not their President. It’s not happening to them, so why should they care about the details? So, I pretend to be Canadian. I pretend it’s not happening to me either. And I tell myself others have it worse, that even though this is our new reality, I won’t have to change my goals for myself.

I’m a Scientist. After the election, I threw myself into my work. I moved to the UK looking for better opportunities. In the US, most scientists don’t gain independence until they’re 43. I didn’t want to wait more than a decade to start my own research, so I left home. I’ve been lucky: the last four years have been the most creative of my life. But I’ve watched so many of my peers here and in the US- people I respect for their ingenuity, their dedication, their sheer brilliance- leave research. Some moved to industry, some to administration. Some to jobs they always wanted. Some were pushed out, digging in their fingernails around the doors closing on them. Some simply disappeared. This is the reality for early career scientists.

Two weeks ago, Trump released his plan to cut the budget of the National Institutes of Health by a fifth. It’s characteristic, but it’s only an exaggeration of a problem we’ve all been fighting for years. Independent scientists have been working at 2003 funding levels for the last 12 years. That’s my entire scientific career. That’s the limit of the careers of so many of my cohort. We’re the lost generation of scientists.

The March for Science is on Saturday. I’ll be at a march in London. I got a special March for Science t-shirt and I’m working on my sign. I’m not as eloquent as that Glaswegian guitarist, but I’m also marching for Independence. I’m marching for my friends who’ve been forced out of careers they trained decades for. I’m marching for the future of a human endeavor that has the potential to save lives, to ease suffering, to teach us about ourselves. I’m marching because there’s work to do. I’m marching for Science. But I’m also marching for myself. I hope you’ll join me.



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