To be a good scientist, be more human, not less
Science has a bit of a reputation of being for logical and reasonable people. That emotions have no place within its world of equations and graphs, where numbers can tell you if something is significant or not. Easy as pie. As a young person terrified of emotions (hindsight my old friend!) that aspect of science seemed ideal. No pesky feelings, just facts! Except scientists are some of the most passionate people I’ve ever met. Love drives most scientists, and I’ve met very few you could describe as cold (cold in the emotional sense, not thermally. I’m sure most polar scientists are lovely). I think as a field we’re learning how to grapple with our feelings. We’re learning to handle eco-grief and anxiety, to open up in a way that allows the public to trust us. We’re realising that the humanities and social sciences are essential if we want to fix the wrongs science has been a part of over the years.
I’m convinced that my journey with my own queerness has allowed me to grow into my sense of empathy, both with myself and others. Being queer is not a single issue. It is intersectional, acknowledging that we can’t really progress without integrating anti-racist, feminist, and anti-capitalist rhetoric into our activism, among other things. Climate change and other environmental issues are the same. Capitalist greed and violent imperialism have led to the mess we find ourselves in, including the human rights abuses that have plagued us for years. All injustice is connected, and we must acknowledge this as a scientific community. The politicians who would sell their children’s future for oil and gas shares are of the same ilk as those who ignore the violence committed against the LGBTQ+ community. Like everything, Western science is a product of the society it was brought about in, and just as we have a responsibility to do good science, we have a responsibility to right the wrongs of the past. I would argue that otherwise “good” science that perpetuates these issues is not good science at all.
For some, bringing up the experiences of LGBTQIA+ people in science seems bizarre. Why bring your personal life into an objective field? One fifth of LGBT physicists in America consider leaving the workplace because of discrimination. Travelling to conferences and conducting fieldwork have extra challenges. Here’s an open letter about a paper published last week that could potentially put queer men in danger. How can we solve the world’s issues if we keep driving anyone that’s not a straight white man out of science?
Growing up I didn’t know of any queer scientists. This was by design, because our history has been kept from us deliberately, but that’s a whole other article (I do remember being a teenager learning about what was done to Alan Turing by the country he helped save and being riotously angry, as an ally of course. Hindsight strikes again). So deeply closeted I may as well have been in Narnia, that didn’t matter to me then. But it matters now as I figure out my career path and where and with who I want to work. It especially matters when I do education and outreach that people see me and know we’re out here. Even if it’s just a rainbow badge on my lab coat, or a rainbow flag in my Twitter profile, it’s like a little friendly wave. I see you, I get you, you belong here. I know that’s what it feels like for me. So, it seems to me that the way to go about dealing with these issues is to be more emotional, not less. To acknowledge the interconnectedness of all things. To realise that the forces aiming to destroy the biological diversity we’ve dedicated our lives to understanding and protecting are the same ones who wish to continue oppressing us.
Science has never been apolitical, so we should stop demanding it of those who carry it out. We should acknowledge and honour the diversity of those who work in science, just as we appreciate the diversity and fluidness of nature. We are part of nature after all. Acknowledging my queerness makes me a better scientist. I feel happier, can give more energy to worrying about how I make R run the model I want instead of worrying if I’d outed myself via a clumsy joke. On days when it feels like too much, when the eco-grief is intense, I draw on the memory of those who went before me, who fought for a better world. On the days when I am so angry I want to scream, I remember my queer forebears who channelled that anger into action, into art, into kindness. It reminds me to keep going, to pay it forward and lift others up. Because everyone in science is smart, so why not strive to be kind?
So this LGBTQ in STEM day, take a moment to reflect. Wonder at the weirdness of nature, and how wonderful it is to be part of it (how incredible is it to live on the same planet as sex-changing fish and lesbian asexual lizards? Pretty incredible!). Think about how you can make science more equitable, not just for queer folks, but for everyone. Let yourself feel, reflect, and keep going, always keep going. The baton is in our hands now, and it’s time to run towards a better world.
Danielle is a MSc student studying Marine Vertebrate Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter. You can find Dani on Twitter at @Aqua_Dan1