Democracy is currently under threat in the United States. Some scientists have joined in efforts to counter this threat, but most of us have not. We are understandably focused on our pressing professional and family responsibilities, particularly during the current COVID-19 pandemic. But in this time of crisis for our nation we need to sound the alarm. To do so—to express our concerns and recommend actions—a group of us posted a statement on September 18 for our colleagues to sign:
As scientists committed to democratic principles, we observe troubling developments in the public affairs of the United States: the undermining of democratic checks and balances; threats to the electoral process; subversion of the rule of law; vilification of people of color, of other minorities, and of immigrants; the fomenting of hate, division, misogyny, and violence; attacks on the free press; propagation of disinformation; and sidelining of science as input to public policy. We must counter these trends that are moving the nation away from its roots in democratic self-governance towards authoritarianism.
We face a national crisis unlike any we have witnessed. It comes at a time when there is a pressing need to employ science to address urgent national and international challenges, including COVID-19, climate change, the danger from nuclear weapons, and racial and economic injustice.
Action is needed now to defend the democratic foundations of the United States. Other nations have gone down the path away from democracy, leading to dark places. We call on all people of conscience to consider and to act on these issues through the full exercise of their democratic and civil rights, including participating in the national debate, supporting candidates, voting, and defending the integrity of the electoral process.
Initial signers included eight Nobel Prize winners; more than 60 members of the U.S. National Academies; former high-level government officials; and university presidents. A week later, more than 2,500 scientists had added their endorsements, from a broad spectrum of scientific disciplines, and the number is now approaching 4,000, if it hasn't already reached that milestone.
Scientists are trained to separate truth from fiction, signal from noise. We can spot scientific disinformation, which is a hallmark of authoritarianism. And we see clearly when scientific analysis is being neglected in setting policies that affect the welfare of the nation. The presidents of the National Academies of Science and Medicine have released a statement that they are “alarmed by political interference in science amid [the] pandemic.” Others are also voicing concern, but more is needed. We hope that our statement will stimulate other sectors of U.S. society to speak up similarly—the business community, the sports world, universities, and more.
Some of the grave issues identified in the above statement, such as racial and economic injustice, pre-date the current crisis. What is now under attack is the very possibility of addressing these deep systemic problems through a participatory, cooperative, deliberative, democratic process.
The United States is at a turning point. We are all familiar with many nations that have made the transition from democracy to authoritarianism. All such transitions have led to a reduction in freedom and some to true horrors inflicted on minority groups and dissidents. Now is the moment to act so that we never have to experience an authoritarian version of America.
As one step, we urge our scientific colleagues to sign on to the above statement at https://secure.everyaction.com/onlineactions/wyqo2a6rB0aXTH1XB4icYQ2
We must use whatever channels are available to make our voices heard, including through our scientific societies, the media, nongovernmental organizations and political associations. We must join together in this effort.
Note: We list our affiliations for the purpose of identification only; the views expressed here are those of the authors, not of their institutions.