Science is worth marching for, because our future is worth marching for

As Thomas Jefferson said, ‘Science is my passion, politics, my duty’

Scientists rally during the American Geophysical Union’s meeting In San Francisco on December 13, 2016. CREDIT: AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez
Scientists rally during the American Geophysical Union’s meeting In San Francisco on December 13, 2016. CREDIT: AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez

This Earth Day, for the first time ever, scientists will march on Washington, DC and in 500 cities around the globe.

This is the start of a movement in support of science from concerned citizens everywhere, because our prosperity and security require we make policy decisions based on all the facts, not just the facts we like.

Some will be marching on Washington because they understand that science is the key to public health and sustainable economic vitality. Others are responding to the greatest assault on science, reason, and basic, observable facts in modern history.

This country was founded by people who believed deeply in science and understood scientific leadership was the key make this country the richest, strongest in the world.

George Washington was what we call today a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) professional — a math whiz who at age 17 became the colonies’ first official county surveyor. In the first ever state of the union address, he told Congress, “There is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science and literature.”

“Science is my passion, politics is my duty,” explained Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson in 1791. For nearly two decades — including the entire time he was vice president and president—he was also President of The American Philosophical Society, the nation’s oldest scientific society, which was founded by the great American scientist Ben Franklin. “Natural Philosophy” was the term used for the natural sciences back then, which is why it’s in the title of Newton’s famed Principia — “Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica.”

In his book, “Inventing America: Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence,” the historian Gary Wills calls the Declaration a “scientific paper” and says, “The Declaration’s opening is Newtonian. It lays down the law.”

How familiar was Jefferson with the Principia? Very. Newton’s masterpiece was widely revered among the founding fathers. But Jefferson in particular had studied it closely, and he even wrote a letter identifying what he calculated to be a tiny mathematical error in it.

And it was Abraham Lincoln — the only president who ever received a patent — who created the National Academy of Sciences to ensure the leaders of this country had the best scientific advice.

Ensuring U.S. leadership in science requires ensuring this country is a place scientists and innovators want to live, which in turn requires ensuring we maintain our open society and open borders. A 2014 Stanford study found that “U.S. patents increased by 31 percent in fields common among Jewish scientists who fled Nazi Germany for America.”

Every single one of the six U.S. Nobel laureates in 2016 were immigrants — and a remarkable 40 percent of all of U.S. winners in physics, chemistry, and medicine since 2000 were immigrants. That’s the kind of winning this country needs to keep doing.

For more than two centuries, we’ve had a broad political consensus that investment in science and evidence-based policies were essential to U.S. prosperity and security. But in the last two decades a growing attack on science and scientists has put our future at risk.

If our climate and energy policy are not science based, then we will miss the rapidly closing window to avoid catastrophic impacts like sea level rise, extreme weather, and Dust-Bowlification. Thanks to years of investment in clean energy technologies here and around the world, we have the tools avoid the worst.

Will we listen to science and use it in time?