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Rally for science Boston

Hundreds rallied in support of science in Boston in February outside the annual meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Science.l

Will science survive in these confusing, challenging times?

That was one of many questions people pondered at a daylong exploration called “Science and the American Experiment” at the Pyle Center in Madison earlier this month. The program was sponsored by the venerable Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, which has been exploring tough questions like this since its founding in 1870.

The Wisconsin Academy may be more important than ever today, in a time when state institutions and the people who work in them have been threatened, cajoled and sometimes silenced.

Surveys show that many people today form their beliefs about science based on how political and religious leaders tell them to think. As Greg Jeschke, former anchor at WKOW-TV in Madison, put it, “We have gone from an ‘I think’ to an ‘I feel’ society.” People read less. About one in five Americans is considered scientifically literate. Science coverage in the media has declined.

Panelists explored topics like how to communicate about science in a post-truth era, the importance of science and research at our universities to the state’s economy, and how science and policy intersect.

I joined Jeschke and Dee Hall of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism on the communications panel and shared how times have changed since I covered issues like the cleanup of our rivers thanks to the Clean Water Act. I was a young reporter in central Wisconsin, and the man who spearheaded the Wisconsin River cleanup was a Department of Natural Resources water specialist named Bob Martini. Many times, I called to ask him questions so that newspaper readers could better understand the science of how to clean up our waterways.

In today’s DNR, reporters can’t get to people like Martini. Access has been thwarted, and political appointees do the talking. Many science positions in the agency have been limited, and Republican politicians have pretty much forbidden employees to talk about climate change.

The science and policy panel included hydrologist George Kraft, emeritus professor from UW-Stevens Point and UW Extension, who recounted how the science about the impacts of ground water extraction in central Wisconsin has been denied for decades by agricultural interests. Kraft didn’t say so, but there were concerted efforts to silence him. He did say there are too many “disengaged scientists” who do not share what they know beyond the confines of their laboratories. It’s the age-old problem for scientists who also see themselves as citizens. But with politicians breathing down their necks these days, it is probably worse than it has been in decades.

Panelists and an engaged audience pondered the meaning of all this, and the consensus seemed to be that a dangerous chill has settled over some of our valued institutions. We wondered aloud whether a program that explored these important questions would even be possible on many state university campuses today, so fearful are administrators and faculty of political intrusions.

That undercuts the bold mission of our university system, the Wisconsin Idea, which says the walls of our universities are the boundaries of our state. Bill Barker, senior associate dean for research at UW-Madison’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, summed up that mission this way: “The Wisconsin Idea is a call to service.”

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It has served the state well over time, but the institutions that have done so much to improve the quality of life and economic well-being of our citizens are under threat. That makes independent organizations like the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters all the more important.

History instructs us on the importance of its work. In 1906, John J. Davis said this following two years as president of the Wisconsin Academy: “He who knows but does not feel may be a bad citizen; he who feels but does not know may be fully as dangerous; he who both knows and feels is the ideal citizen.”

Bill Berry of Stevens Point writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times.

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