A Reflection Beyond the Science: Socially Aware and Politically Engaged Scientists

This is part four of an exclusive series from SDM on the World Science Conference Israel (WSCI). Click here for part one, here for part 2 and here for part three.

On my plane home from Tel Aviv, some nagging thoughts arose. I felt a tinge of guilt for having come to Israel for WSCI – an event that was microscopically scientific but macroscopically political.

The Opening Ceremony, extravagant in every sense of the word, had several important political figures in attendance, ranging from a speech from an earlier prime minister of Israel (Shimon Peres) to foreign ambassadors from around the world. Even the informal opening night the day before featured a previous foreign minister of Israel, whose speech involved words like “radical jihadists,” “imperial ambitions of Iran,” and “ISIS”. Israel, including Hebrew University of Jerusalem, went to great lengths to attract some of the brightest young scientists to its capital because there is great value in international investment into Israeli science. So it’s not too far-fetched to spend a plane ride home contemplating the political implications of WSCI 2015.

At first, I felt like a pawn in a system – just another 19-year-old herded into a conference that was a massive (and successful) publicity stunt. Probably sounds very cynical. But I didn’t know how to feel about this guilt, until I realized: this is my life. How could any of us, approaching or already in our early-20s, refuse an opportunity like this? Meeting Nobel Laureates, exploring the culture of another country, and quite simply, traveling!

That said, I realized that, despite my decision to come to WSCI 2015 – one that I would never regret and am grateful for – young scientists need to be engaged in science policy and social justice issues. Science has no agenda; people do. Developing a nuanced understanding of science without and in the presence of political objectives is important. Politics dictate our future: it determines how much we get paid, it determines if “society” values scientific research enough to funnel millions of dollars into it, and it determines social issues such as welfare programs for young women in scientific research. I strongly believe that scientists need to be acutely aware of such policy decisions and the policy decisions that make conferences such as WSCI happen. Context is everything. Morally considerate action happens when you think about the effects of your decisions on others – in context and not in a vacuum. This is why I think that every WSCI delegate should consider what WSCI meant not only to them as individuals, but also to Israel as a nation-state.

The World Science Conference in Israel urged all of us to heed the words of Einstein (who was one of the co-founders of Hebrew University): question everything. We were told that the Israeli way of being is to be curious, critical, and innovative in our thinking. It’s only appropriate that we apply this line of thinking to the context surrounding WSCI, in order to be conscientious scientists. When it comes to travel – staying in another country, discovering its cultural ebb and flow – it’s easy to leave a part of yourself there. And it makes it harder to decouple the nasty politics from the nation’s people.

I met some unforgettable, intellectually stimulating individuals at WSCI 2015. That experience is not lessened by the need to remain cognizant of political and social issues surrounding science. I urge all young scientists to not do science in isolation; there is a world of forces, unscientific yet equally important, to which we must pay attention.