I was never more proud to be a UCSF resident alum and student of science than on Saturday’s UCSF Stand Up for Science Teach-in now available for online streaming. The event was held in conjunction with the international March for Science, and preceded a rally downtown. The worldwide rallies were enormous, drawing hundreds of thousands of science supporters. Science (and even facts) are under siege, and we are facing catastrophic threats ranging from climate change to health care that demand reasoned scientific input and solutions. I hope the energy of the march continues to increase and inform education, policy and business throughout the world.
I did learn that online, there has been “drama” about diversity (see Buzzfeed’s "Bill Nye and the Science March’s White-Dude Drama". Many scientists and science enthusiasts were strident that the march should be cross-cultural and inclusive of genders, races, and disabilities. There was a backlash from some white male leaders (such as Harvard Psychologist Steven Pinker), who said that ‘identity politics’ was hijacking the focus on science.
I don’t know the details of what Professor Pinker was reacting to, but if I’m reading his sentiment correctly, I couldn’t disagree more. First of all, as the March was demonstrating, science and science policy are inherently political – because they involve observations of and decisions about people. (Politics derives from the word for citizen.) Science must be inclusive from top to bottom, or you will leave out important information, and draw the wrong conclusions. Lives are at risk. Dr. Esteban Burchard, one of the UCSF panelists (and my Stanford medical school classmate!) pointed out that a commonly used cardiovascular drug is only effective in 50% of Asians and Pacific Islanders. So if you’re Asian, the Emergency Room may be playing “Russian Roulette with your life” when they give you the drug. There are well-noted health disparities across ethnic groups and by zip code. The same is true of environmental hazards. We absolutely need diversity of identities and thought at the bench, bedside, Chair of department, and policy-making levels to ensure the best and most scientifically valid answers to all the problems facing us.
My other point is that Social Media can be more problematic than helpful. A tagline in my soon-to-be-released book on the psychology of social networks (Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks) is “Social Media is too much you and not enough glue.” Social media is good at picking apart everything, and inflaming the vulnerabilities of identity. It has so far been less good at actually being social – providing the glue to bring together disagreeing parties, or really bring about empathy and understanding.
That requires real world leadership and activity, not social media. I made the point to Dr. Burchard after the panel discussion. “This panel showcased incredible scholarship and leadership. But I would doubt that any of the panelists have substantial followings on social media.” I checked, and I was right. Half the scientists had no Twitter accounts that I could find, and only one had over 2,000 followers. Here are the results (Twitter links given when found):
The panel, moderated by Mike McCune, MD, PhD, (no Twitter) included:
Cherrie Boyer, PhD, on her work with the Department of Defense and the allocation of time for preventative health education and necessary funding for the reproductive health needs of military personnel, particularly female recruits. No Twitter
Esteban Burchard, MD, MPH, on his efforts to raise awareness among policymakers regarding differences between racial and ethnic groups related to genetic testing and the importance of precision medicine. 150 followers
Susan Fisher, PhD, on stem cell research and efforts to continue work that the federal government refuses to fund. No Twitter
James G. Kahn, MD, MPH on evidence and analyses to influence policies for needle exchange, adult male circumcision, and other HIV prevention spending. No Twitter
Suneil Koliwad, MD, PhD, on his efforts to raise awareness of bench research, its implications for disease, and the importance of funding basic research. 67 followers
Rebecca Smith-Bindman, MD, on her research on overuse of imaging and educating policymakers about establishing standards of radiology practice. 410 followers
Tracey Woodruff, PhD, MPH, on why environment matters to health and justice. No Twitter
Social media does not tell the whole story, though it makes headlines. Social media influence does not equal policy influence, and may in fact distract from it. Much of our scientific leadership simply isn’t popular on Twitter. (Well, there’s Neil de Grasse Tyson with 7.22 million followers, but even he can’t do it all!) Maybe that’s generational, but maybe that says something about how scientists think and work, and the public's interest in following science on Twitter.
The UCSF panel exemplified scientific excellence, leadership and diversity. Half the panel were members of minority groups, and half were women – very reflective of the San Francisco and California community. All the panelists had been active and influential in policy-making decisions. UCSF is an institution “with a moral spine” in backing issues of diversity, but only has 38,800 Twitter followers, far fewer than Half an Onion in a Bag at 740,000).
Diversity still requires a fight. Sad! (As a certain Tweeter might tweet.) But online, you might get people who don’t understand the issues inflaming sensitivities unnecessarily. Diversity requires relationship, networking and advocacy – not simply tweeting.
Get involved. Join your professional organizations and civic institutions. Run for office in these organizations and institutions. Make diversity a reality, not simply a Twitter beef or Facebook roast. We need leaders, not Tweeters.
We need to make civil society work. I don’t think social media (what I call push-button media) can get us there.
(c) 2017, Ravi Chandra, M.D. D.F.A.P.A.
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