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I am currently working in the sciences (broadly speaking, the STEM field) in the United States as a researcher.

I have been following quite closely to the social-political trend of the US for the past few years, and I am quite troubled at the direction that the administration, as well as a (seemingly) majority of the society, is taking us. I am troubled at the US administration's policy of travel ban, which has affected dozens of my actual colleagues. I am resentful of the lack of empathy of many Americans when it comes to police abuse and political corruption. Overall, I am not optimistic about the increasingly intolerant atmosphere against many racial minorities in the country. They are my colleagues, mentors, friends, family, and peers.

At the same time, I am also troubled by the use of technology to limit people's privacy and to influence people's opinion for the worse. A recent presentation at my University was on the topic of accelerating content ranking algorithms that can be used to influence social networks. I have read about how this automated algorithms can be used to isolate people into an echo chamber and cause extremist views. The presenter had no qualm about the ethical implications of these engineering decisions.

While there is a strong tendency in the STEM fields to ignore the social and the political, perhaps out of fear that it will distract from our work, I know that these things will not be ignoring us. I have read about the consequence of the rise of fascism in Germany, and its steep cost to academic research. I have read many stories of famed researchers becoming refugees, or being sent to concentration camps, or even committing suicide. I fear that this future may seem as far off from us now as it was to the researchers in the early 20th century.

How can I practically contribute to social justice (and human rights in general) while working in the sciences? Scientific research is very meaningful, but it requires a lot of focus and concentration. I understand that a scientific training has potentially stripped me of being educated on many social issues, and I can make up for it by reading about them. However, it there anything more I can do beyond this? Can I use my skills as a scientist to meaningfully contribute to research that can have a meaningful impact on social justice? Has anyone else found a coping mechanism?

  • Say a bit about your own position. Are you at a university or in industry or ...? Also a bit more about where you stand in the profession. Are you a relative newcomer or an established researcher? Knowing your specific field might help, also. – Buffy Jun 28 '18 at 10:31
  • I can think of a couple of examples of grad students who became activists, but I think all of them dropped out of academia, or took 7+ years to graduate. – knzhou Jun 28 '18 at 11:14
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    Very similar question on Maths SE: Can I use my powers for good? – gerrit Jun 28 '18 at 11:31
  • Not a full answer, but you may be interested in the effective altruism movement, especially if your ethics is close to (soft) utilitarianism: effectivealtruism.org – henning Jun 28 '18 at 16:04
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Can I use my skills as a scientist to meaningfully contribute to research that can have a meaningful impact on social justice?

Yes, you can.

In the USA, there is an entire union dedicated to this: the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Science is essential for the progress of humanity, and social justice is no exception.

  • The environmental sciences (including, but not limited to, climate science) have informed what is now a huge worldwide and successful green movement. Where there is pollution or climate change, the poor are hit hardest, as they have least access to adaptive measures. Therefore, action on environmental issues is closely linked to social justice.
  • Engineers develop low-cost energy solutions that help bring electricity and education to rural areas of poor countries that previously had no such access. Or cheap ways to filter drinking water.
  • Educate members of activist networks. Many networks of progressive action are lacking in access to science or engineering expertise. If your knowledge matters to society, it matters to them. Reach out to those groups. They will welcome you!

As an arbitrary starting point, you could consider the Craigslist Charitable list. Are you a satellite engineer? The space4peace group will welcome you (they will, too, if you are not). Do you work in agricultural or plant sciences? Surely some of the farm-related groups would love for you to come by. Are you a nuclear (weapons) engineer? Work on research on how to safely dismantle nuclear weapons. Do you work in software engineering? There's plenty of charitable programming to do, or to educate members of all kinds of groups how they can protect themselves from being spied upon. Et cetera! If you're into it, there's more direct action alternatives as well; a pipeline blockade may have get more attention if it includes a distinguished professor than if it consists entirely of "college dropouts".

You can combine this with an academic career (although depending on where you are and what you do, you may want to limit actions to stay out of jail). Researchers at all levels from PhD students to professors are active in those groups. It will be hard work, but it may well be that the volunteer time you spend with grassroots will motivate you, make your life more fulfilling, and ultimately even make your regular research work more productive.

  • Environmental sciences and Social Justice are not related in any sence. – user94263 Jun 28 '18 at 12:34
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    @Stefan They are very much related. Climate justice is a form of social justice, and climate science is an environmental science. Similarly, the entire environmental movement (subset of social justice) is informed by environmental science, as it was kickstarted by Rachel Carsons Silent Spring, which is itself an environmental science book. Environmental pollution and climate change is very much socially unjust, as it's the poor that are hit hardest. – gerrit Jun 28 '18 at 13:16
  • @Stefan Personally, I moved into research related to environmental sciences (from physics) to a large degree for social justice reasons. – gerrit Jun 28 '18 at 13:21
  • as far as I know, ES and stopping global warming will just keep poor nation poorer, and in essence doesn't tackle main social and economic problem of the world – user94263 Jun 28 '18 at 13:32
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    @Stefan The idea that social justice and "policy domain" are not also related is...flawed, imo. And it's not necessarily just policy - I've seen epidemiologists at community meetings, and protests, and in lawsuits. Unless you have an extremely narrow notion of social justice, I think it's really hard to argue that "Poor people shouldn't be subjected to worse outcomes due to their environment" isn't social justice. – Fomite Jun 28 '18 at 16:59
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There are a number of fields that do this - for example, taking a social justice approach to something like social or environmental epidemiology would not be surprising in the slightest, and really wouldn't require stepping outside your normal research as much as it would be framing it in a particular way.

There's also groups you could volunteer for, either locally or nationally.

Finally, there's non-profits that actively combine these two. The first one that comes to mind is the Human Rights Data Analysis Group which does some really cool work around data science for social causes.

  • strongly disagree with equating ES and SJ. ES brought to us such an unscientific movement, such as ANTI-GMO, anti-vaxxers, PETA, clean eating, Ketamine hospitals, Raw food, Food Inc, Greenpeace, South Dacota Pipeline. These are all Environmental SJ movement that are highly antiscientific – user94263 Jun 28 '18 at 17:27
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    @Stefan That a thing can happen does not mean it must happen. The antivaxx movement uses poorly run observational studies. That does not mean all observational studies are a problem. Wakefield was published in Lancet - that does not mean all medical journals are a problem. – Fomite Jun 28 '18 at 17:50
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In my opinion, the most reliable way to enact social justice as a scientist is through volunteering at your local school districts. The chance of becoming entangled in the political workings of policy while trying to maintain a strong research agenda are minimal. But what you can do is go to your local school district, register to volunteer, submit a background check, and volunteer to coach/assistant coach the local science olympiad, math olympiad, science fair, etc. Even volunteering to read for an hour a week or coming to a classroom to talk about what you do as a scientist can have an influence in a child's life. Or, for example, presenting your research in a way children can understand. You will make science "real" to those children.

Most university towns are large enough to have a title 1 school in the area. This is the school where there will likely be children who need people willing to give of their time.

A second route is to secure a grant to gain funding for a more large scale project.The US house science committee has directed the NIH to set aside grant funding for science education initiatives. Though, this will entail a considerably larger amount of commitment to manage a study/grant.

In short, look locally. It might not be as flashy as other means of social justice, but it will be meaningful. I can tell you that, personally, I find this approach to be exceptionally rewarding and meaningful.

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