Opinion: Science and politics are necessary bedfellows

San Francisco sunset

San Francisco at sunset. (Vicki Deng/Reed College)

For as long as I remember, I was fascinated with nature. I could never take my eyes off of the massive redwoods swaying high above me or the fascinating critters revealed when my curiosity turned over rocks and logs. I was constantly wondering why and how everything works the way they do, creating more questions in my mind than can be answered. In turn, I discovered my passion for science, driven by my language related to and perspective of the environment's and universe's beauties.

redwood trees
Willamette National Forest, Oregon. (Vicki Deng/Reed College)

As I took the path to becoming a scientist, I spent the majority of my time investigating miniscule details of those why’s and how’s that began my journey. But as I dove deeper into learning about what keeps the redwoods and critters going, I was also immersed in a community where science, and more importantly, scientists are not to be politically opinionated: neutrality kept the science pure and focused. And it made sense. But then it didn’t make sense.

When I look at redwoods now, I no longer just see the beauty of these tallest trees, but also that redwoods store more carbon dioxide than any other tree. It’s amazing capabilities include:

  • Ability to have one gene produce multiple characteristics to survive in various environments 

  • Tall structures to build crowns optimal for photosynthesis

  • Decay-resistant heartwood

So when there are threats to redwoods, I am no longer saddened solely because of the potential loss of beauty, but also because of the cascading effects it’ll bring to the ecosystem. The long and normalized divide between science and politics have completely separated the people who are making decisions on our environment from the factual information regarding it. You see, politics, while having no informational connections, are as rooted together with science as it is with history. Whether it be economically (due to future changes in our access to resources) or socially (with dangers to our health), the future is predicted by science. So when we separate science from politics, the decisions on how we treat our resources and our land are not backed up by the many decades of work went into helping make that decision a right one.

Crystal Springs Creek, Oregon trees
Crystal Springs Creek, Oregon. (Vicki Deng/Reed College)

Today, the war on science is reaching an inflection point as the mass effects from climate change become apparent. It is no longer just strayed polar bears on melting ice caps some 3,000 miles away. It has become the raging fires, resulting from unprecedented periods of drought, that is covering the once blue skies of California and Oregon with ash and smoke, the toxic algae blooms in Lake Superior due to warming of the water, and the worsening hurricanes increasing in numbers. As scientists, writers, artists, or politicians, we have the responsibility to recognize this and see the action items needed to make the future possible.

Standing here today as a scientist and a member of society hoping to see again the awe and wonder of our planet in the future, I recognize that I am as responsible for the authenticity of my science as I am to know its purpose in the world. Science should no longer shy away from the politics and be solely directed to other scientists for future discoveries.

Take the study of invertebrate fossils for example: through them, we see the story of how marine ecosystems were affected by climate changes over the course of the last 12 million years. That story in turn warns us of how deforestation and continuing usage of nonrenewable energy may deplete the availability of seafood due to ocean acidification. It is not that seafood is an enjoyable meal for many, but that it sustains over a billion people on Earth that should alarm us into making sure political decisions based on this science.

Masked underneath all the details and jargon, science has a story — one that is much needed to be told in our current state. Now is the time to summon our inner Lorax and be the storytellers of science for our planet, our future.

How do you move the Planet Forward? Tweet us @planet_forward or contribute to the conversation with your own story.