Taking a stand for science and society

  • Taking a stand for science and society

The world has taken a horrible turn for the worse in the last few weeks. Following a rather bizarre inauguration weekend that featured a running dispute over the size of Trump’s crowd and then the inspiring Women’s March, the Trump Administration unsettled the world with a flurry of controversial orders, some likely illegal and most certainly immoral. I did not expect to see things go this wrong, this fast.  

The travel bans were probably the most frightening in intent, blocking people from travelling to the US on the basis of their place of birth, including existing legal residents as well refugees who were on the verge of making a new start. The orders themselves were drafted to avoid the overt racism and hostility towards Muslim society that characterised the Trump campaign, but failed in this by their construction on the flimsiest of pretexts. It was a dog-whistle that everybody could hear.

The impact on many people, including those fleeing wars in Syria and Yemen, was immediate. Around the world students, refugees, and others in vulnerable circumstances were turned away or detained at airports, separated from their families, or saw their hopes for escaping deadly conflict destroyed.

Te Pūnaha Matatini is the meeting place of many faces, and amongst our diverse community are friends and colleagues who have been directly affected by this ban. Just as we would not tolerate a researcher who refused to work with people on the basis of their place of birth, their gender, or their religious beliefs, we also have no tolerance for politicians who craft policies that use this as a basis to single out vulnerable people for harm.

What can we do? At Te Pūnaha Matatini HQ we’ve been writing to people in positions of power to urge them to take a stand. If you’d like to know how we’ve been going about this, then drop us a line.

We will also be supporting the March for Science, which will take place on Earth Day, April 22. The focal point for the March will be Washington DC, but there will also be marches in cities in New Zealand. You can follow @ScienceMarch_NZ on twitter if you would like to join in here in New Zealand.

This march is not just for scientists. The Trump administration has already sent strong signals that it is willing to hinder the science community’s ability to speak to the public and it is highly likely that cuts to science funding will follow. Climate change and the degradation of the environment will affect everyone, however, and it is the already marginalised who stand to lose the most. And none of the crises that society faces today are solvable unless we also address social injustice.   

I’ve seen and heard comments that politics has no place in science, but these remind me of what I heard when New Zealanders marched against the Springbok Tour in 1981. One must acknowledge that science flourishes under some political arrangements, while it fails under others. When politicians abandon tolerant discourse, respect for others, and dismiss the value of evidence, science is in trouble. Whose job is it then to ensure the public understands this, if not the science community?

I’ve also seen pleas from some scientists to be left alone in their labs to get on with their science; some high profile scientists have argued that by addressing intersectionality, the march organisers are also attempting to put politics into science. We know that in science itself there are inequities and power structures that prevent or make it harder for some groups of people to become scientists in the first place. Only the most privileged in our society have labs in which to hide. There is no equivalence between the politics of Trump that seeks to exclude, and the efforts of many scientists to make science accessible to everyone.


Shaun Hendy is Director of Te Pūnaha Matatini. In 2016 he authored the book Silencing Science which explores the public obligations of scientists and instances where scientists have been prevented from speaking out.

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