Marching for Science: Interview with Rosalyn LaPier
Rosalyn LaPier is a writer, ethnobotanist, and environmental historian, as well as an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana and Métis. She is on the National Steering Committee of the March for science. She is a visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School and an associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Montana.
Harvard Political Review: On April 22, 2017, people across the country will take to the streets as a part of the March for Science. Why are they protesting?
Rosalyn LaPier: I would argue the March for Science is not necessarily a “protest,” but a march that is for science. We are advocating for something, not protesting against something. The March is about bringing together scientists, people who are science educators, people who are interested in science, and citizens who are impacted by science in their everyday lives. It’s to bring people together to advocate, or continue to advocate, for science in our American democracy.
HPR: The Atlantic counts 21 distinct goals for the March outlined in texts published by the organizers, ranging from celebrating science to increasing its diversity. How do you balance so many different ideas into one protest movement?
RL: I would distill it all down to one thing, which is that the March for Science is advocating for science. I know that there are a lot of ideas on the list. We update our website almost on a daily basis, so if you visit day-to-day, there is going to be something new that we have added. There’s always going to be something new added to that list. The most important thing is to make sure that science stays on the agenda of not only public policy makers in Washington D.C., but also in citizens’ minds as to the importance of science in everyday life.
HPR: Some scientists, including Robert Young at the New York Times, have described the March as “[politicizing] the science we care so much about.” How do you respond to this criticism?
RL: I would say that science plays many roles in society; it definitely plays many roles in a democratic society. It is impossible to be completely apolitical, but I think that science is nonpartisan. There really is a difference between being not partisan and being political. This is something I run into personally when I work with people in Washington D.C. related to issues that are in Native American communities and environmental justice issues. I always remind anybody I talk to in Congress or in D.C. that Native American issues or environmental justice issues or environmental issues are not partisan issues. Those are issues that impact everybody.
If you are being impacted by unclean water, it’s not a political issue. It’s whether the water is clean or unclean. I think that folks who are working to address those issues – scientists who are working to address those issues, but also citizens who are working to address those issues – don’t view science as political. They view it as nonpartisan. But they do view it as part of the world that we live in.
HPR: The March for Science follows on the heels of the Women’s March earlier this year. Why in the time of social media do you think the march remains a potent form of protest?
RL: People like to get together; that’s the basic answer. As humans, we like to be able to have our voices be heard, but we also enjoy making something, such as advocating for science or advocating for any issue, into a social occasion that can then turn into a social movement. It’s very hard, especially in cyberspace, to get a sense of if something is becoming a social movement. It’s hard to see the numbers out there.
It’s a lot easier when you have a lot of people coming together around a particular cause or a particular issue. One of the things that we saw with the Women’s March, because they had the satellite marches as well, is you saw the number of people that were in D.C. who were supporting that concern, but you also saw the satellite marches, and you saw that there was this collective action that was occurring across the United States that helps people then view their position or their stance collectively, and not as individuals.
HPR: Native American organizations were among the first to announce support for the March for Science. Why do you think these groups were so eager to support the March?
RL: Three of the first organizations to partner with the March for Science were the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, the Society Advancing Chicano and Native Americans in Science, and the National Coalition of Native American Language Schools and Programs. All three of them saw this as a great opportunity to continue to encourage their members to pursue science.
They saw that this was something important for them to participate in so that their voices could be a part of the conversation. They would be seen as part of the community of science. There are indigenous people in the science community who are interested in promoting the idea of indigenous science as something that is parallel to Western science, and that indigenous science should also be viewed as something that is important to the academy.
HPR: You are a scholar of indigenous religion and a member of the Blackfeet/Métis tribe. How does the state of science today impact indigenous communities?
RL: Science has played an important role in Native American communities, both in the past and recently. I can give you a few examples. One example is that environmental scientists in particular, and people who work on conducting Environmental Impact Statements, have played an important role in many indigenous communities to help them look at environmental issues within their community by drawing on a lot of different disciplines within science to be able to then make decisions and address certain issues. Whether it is something being built in their community, or whether they are thinking about doing certain types of development, Environmental Impact Statements are extremely helpful. One of the things that has been occurring recently in Native American communities is there has been much more of a push to train from within, more people being sent to study science, technology, engineering, and math. Then those people come back to the indigenous communities to address, again, primarily environmental issues.
A second example would be medical science. There are a lot of health disparities that indigenous communities have – for example, diabetes is disproportionately high in indigenous communities, and there has been a lot of research lately that is looking at diabetes not only in indigenous communities but in other communities as well. Medical science is beginning to help indigenous communities address health issues that are disproportionately prevalent.
A third example would be within the social sciences. Folks who do clinical psychology or social work are addressing issues like trauma or historic trauma within indigenous communities. There has been a lot of really good research that has been done lately in those fields. Because of that research, indigenous communities can begin to address issues such as the incredibly high suicide rate among indigenous youth in our communities.
There are several different ways in which science has been extremely helpful to indigenous communities and is helping address things that we are interested in. There have been many great partnerships between scientists and individual communities. Historically, one of the criticisms that indigenous communities had of science was that scientists would choose their own project without input from the indigenous community and do a study that did not help or did not have any true impact on the indigenous community. I think that is changing. Most projects that are done now are almost always done in partnership with indigenous communities, so that the indigenous community can help inform and say, ‘this is what we want. This is what is going to be helpful to us,’ versus scientists coming in and saying, ‘this is what we are going to study.’ That has made a huge difference and has greatly impacted in a positive way those relationships.
HPR: What would you say is at stake in the March?
RL: In the past year, the Standing Rock Lakota have been in an ongoing fight with the U.S. government over the Missouri River and over the building of a pipeline underneath the Missouri River. From the very beginning, the Standing Rock Lakota have asked the government and the Army Corps of Engineers to have an Environmental Impact Statement. From the very beginning, the Standing Rock Lakota have been asking for scientists. They have been asking for environmental scientists. They have been asking for archaeologists. They have been asking for cultural anthropologists who look at religion and sacred sites: all to conduct an EIS so that then they as a community, and also the U.S. government, can look at that and try and address some of the issues that they believe are going to occur once this pipeline is built.
They have gone to court numerous times, and they have lost every single time. There was also a huge protest that lasted months and months and months out on the Standing Rock reservation and also on Lakota lands off-reservation. That’s an example where a tribal government and a tribal community was asking the U.S. government to use science and scientists to address a potential environmental justice issue, to address a potential issue related to sacred sites and sacred place. It’s an example when the U.S. government has said that they are not going to use science or scientists.
What’s at stake in a march, such as the March for Science, is that we need to remind not only policymakers but also citizens of the United States that science is important and that science can help communities make decisions. When a community such as Standing Rock goes to court over and over and over again and loses every single time, that’s what they are asking for. They will not know what the potential harm is until it occurs. If they had an opportunity at the beginning to ask scientists to participate in the policymaking, the decision-making of what was going to occur, they would at least have some answers.
What’s at stake is how these decisions are going to be made. We have a precedent right now, and the precedent was set during the first week of the new administration when the president signed two different executive orders: one stating that there is going to be an expedited EIS process, which actually never occurred, and that there would be an expedited EIS process for any pipeline or environmental National Environmental Policy Act decision. He also signed an executive order to expedite the Keystone pipeline and the Dakota Access Pipeline.
What he was doing with those executive orders was saying that science was no longer necessary, that science and scientists no longer would be included in the decision-making process. When we look at development within the United States, and especially when we look at potential environmental degradation, we need to listen to how that impacts people, how it impacts citizens on the ground, even in middle-of-nowhere North Dakota.