Why I March for Science
by Luke Goembel, Ph.D.
I was born in the space age. It seems silly now, but when I was in elementary school, there were only two acceptable answers when boys were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up: “army man” or “astronaut.” My choice was astronaut. I loved science. It seemed only natural that I chose to go to a science and engineering high school.
After a three-year postdoctoral appointment, my formal education in science came to an end. I was 38 years old. But like all scientists, my training in science has not yet ended.
In my professional career, I feel the same now as I did in my elementary school days: I love science. I have worked with brilliant scientists. My mentor at Hopkins designed and built instruments for rocket missions starting in the 1960s. I followed in his footsteps: I, too, design and build instruments for space flight. When I was a post-doc at NASA Goddard, I stood in awe of the abilities of my fellow post-docs. All of us competed for awards to study at NASA, and half of us had come from other countries for the honor. To even have played a small part in the space program is like a dream come true. When I reflect on it, my working as a space scientist has a bit of the same thrill I felt when I answered “astronaut” in elementary school.
Two years ago, after spending my lifetime in science, I stumbled into the warped, twisted, and deceptive phenomena of business/politics/policy/science. This concoction of awfulness is a misshapen beast compared to the space science I’ve devoted my life to.
Despite a career in science, my first encounter with business/politics/policy/science began when I became a beekeeper.
I began keeping bees because I wanted a ready, cheap source of honey for making mead. While I haven’t made any mead in my eight years since becoming a beekeeper; I’ve become enthralled by beekeeping.
Two springs ago, my bees were building up their numbers to prepare to collect nectar from flowering trees. Then, within two or three weeks, all of the foragers died. I was distraught. Foremost, I wanted to keep my bees alive. For six years I had cared for them. I had done research before I had gotten my hives, and had built effective hive-stands with ant moats and bottom-boards with small hive beetle traps. I’d dealt effectively with other threats such as varroa mites and wax moths, and my bees had provided me with an abundance of honey. The sudden death of my foraging bees that spring puzzled me. All the bees that had stayed in the hive (nurse bees, queens, and brood) were doing fine. Only those that ventured out of the hive were killed. It struck me that they might have been poisoned.
I asked my neighbors if anyone knew of any pesticide spraying going on in the neighborhood. I was able to answer that myself when I noticed “Mosquito Joe” and “Mosquito Squad” signs posted in neighbors yards. Then, I noticed trucks began to drive through my neighborhood almost daily. Men with Ghostbuster-style backpacks would jump out of the trucks and go from yard to yard to fog the neighborhood with insecticide. I discovered that the neighborhood had been inundated with mailers touting introductory rates on once-every-three-weeks spraying that would eliminate mosquitos from their yard. A concerned neighbor asked one of the sprayers to identify the insecticide that they were applying, and found that it was a micro-encapsulated, long-acting pyrethroid. It was a broad spectrum insecticide that kills just about every insect. In fact, the directions given on the label are identical for both bee and mosquito killing!
The sprayers’ signs were popping up in yards like mushrooms. One morning I paused to observe a Mosquito Joe employee in action. He was spraying the poison up into the canopy of the trees, and out into the streets where the stuff would wash down into the Chesapeake Bay. He was spraying open flowers in broad daylight while my bees were out foraging for nectar. His spraying into the trees was especially troubling: flowering trees are the main source of nectar for bees in my state. It was no wonder that my foragers had died. How could they survive the onslaught?
There must have been some mistake that these exterminators were allowed to pollute my neighborhood with toxins on a mass scale. After calls to the EPA and the Maryland Department of Agriculture I found that there was absolutely nothing I could do to save my bees. The loss of my bees, and the loss of pollinators in general, is simply collateral damage in a huge profit driven enterprise.
This experience with my bees introduced me to that strange bastardization of science that I now refer to as business/politics/policy/science.
Business/politics/policy/science loves producing big authoritarian-sounding statements. Usually, an industry lobbyist or a government official will use Business/politics/policy/science to tell the public that “insecticides, when used as directed, do not harm pollinators.” They often claim that “the science supports this.”
I’ve spent many hours over the last two years reading the science published on the effect of pesticides on pollinators. I have found that this business/politics/policy/science is not real science at all. It is more like if-you-say-it-enough-it-is-true magical thinking and trickery.
To me, a scientist who worked with ethical, selfless colleagues throughout my career, the discovery of this corrupted form of science — simply science-y sounding claims — shook me. I was so shaken, so concerned, that I have been moved to fight. I want to stem the tide of this threat to science. I now take action on this issue out of sheer love of true science, out of the same love of the science that moved me to devote my life to science. I take action out of gratitude for the wonderful career I have had in science, and in reverence to those who have mentored me and welcomed me as a peer.
This is why I am marching for science.
Business/politics/policy/science is an enemy to be fought. It will not go away on its own.
In a way, now that I am semi-retired, I am beginning to live out my other elementary school career dream of becoming an “army man”. My 16-year old son has called me an “eco-warrior.”
I have testified as a scientist in favor of pure science. I am fighting to improve conditions for pollinators in our state. Businesses and their allies in government fought mightily against legislation that would protect bees, but we fought harder. We used science, truth, and wisdom, and lawmakers listened. The legislation passed with a large majority and bipartisan support.
I’ve lobbied in Annapolis and Washington to try to improve prospects for pollinators. I give presentations to beekeepers and others in which I try to explain that it is far from true that “insecticides, when used as directed, do not harm pollinators.”
I explain that the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence shows just the opposite: insecticides, even when used as directed, harm pollinators. They also harm people. The truth needs to be known, for the good of humanity. It is a crime against all of us to lie, to spin, to withhold the facts about such things.
And this is why I am marching for science.