Why We Must Act

March for Science (Unofficial)

Recently, the House of Representatives passed HR 3293, a bill that requires the National Science Foundation to only award grants that are “in the national interest”. The bill is short; I encourage you to read it.

You may look at that requirement and say, “Well, yes, of course. Why are we even passing a law about this? Isn’t this already what the NSF does?” Well, not from the viewpoint of Republican leadership. From their viewpoint, every piece of science should be approved – not by scientists, but by politicians. This bill is not about ensuring that the US benefits from science; it is about the ability to block grants and assign blame. It is about nationalism of the most cowardly sort.

This is the explicit politicization of the NSF.

It doesn’t matter whether you think that science shouldn’t be political. For the Republican leadership, it already is political. Their…

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Publicly Funded Religious Education

That, in a nutshell, is the current goal for Republican leadership.

Ms. Devos, now confirmed as head of the Dept. of Education, is a proponent of school vouchers. This is indeed for the purpose of school choice, as she says, but she historically has only wanted one new option: for people to be able to send their children to a Christian school with state or local money.

Here’s how it’s going to work:

  1. DeVos makes school vouchers and school choice her #1 issue and helps to push a nation-wide voucher system into place.
  2. The voucher system explicitly allows all kinds of schools and phrases that as a non-discrimination measure. It may even go so far as to explicitly prevent states and municipalities from restricting where the funds go, but I doubt that – Republican leadership doesn’t want their children going to school with Jews, after all.
  3. H.R. 899 or another similar bill succeeds in abolishing the Dept. of Ed., probably with DeVos helping to champion it.
  4. Republican leadership threatens to withdraw federal funds from any state that passes restrictions on where the vouchers can be used – but they don’t bother to threaten until such restrictions would affect a Christian school.

As you may remember, I’m not against voucher systems in general. I’m not against Catholic schools, and I suspect there are some other religious schools that do a very good job. However, I am very much for the separation of church and state.

I’m still mulling over what might be the most effective way to fight this. Multiple plans and backup plans are good – after all, that’s what’s being deployed against public education here – so here are a few options:

  • Restrict the use of vouchers on a town level. Individual school boards may have the latitude to make such decisions, and might be able to do it in both directions (“Schools may only accept…” and “The town shall only grant…”).
  • Restrict the use of vouchers on a state level. Same deal, but done at the level of the state legislature. It would be a good idea, in this case, to bring religious official on board early and have them testify in favor of the legislation.
  • Incentivize non-religious vouchers at the state level. If there is a nation-wide voucher system, and the Education Department is no more, then local state education departments will be able to create their own competing voucher system that sweetens the pot with state funds.
  • In the meantime, we try to keep the Dept. of Ed. open as best we can.

I’m interested to hear what others think on this front. What are some of the tactics we might have to use if this happens?

The March for Science

The March for Science has officially set a date! Appropriately, it is Earth Day, April 22nd.


Go. Bring your friends. Bring your labmates.

And in addition: Meet people. Shake hands and coo over babies. Talk passionately about the work you love and how awesome it is. At the march, and before and after. Bring it to schools, to community centers, to picnics, to churches, to megachurches, to Town Day and fireworks displays. Don’t overdo it – we’re kind of good at overdoing things – but let people know. If nerdy is in these days, if being smart is actually socially a good thing, if being good at computers and math is respected, we need to start using it in a wider world.

The AFT and Executive Orders

The American Federation of Teachers has been active and loud recently, and I love it. Their newest document is entitled “AFT opposes Trump executive orders: Information and resources“. Here’s an excerpt:

The order affects approximately 25,000 people holding student and work visas, and as many as 500,000 people who are permanent legal residents of the United States. And it comes days after an order threatening to withhold federal funds from the more than 300 U.S. cities that have declared themselves sanctuaries for our immigrant students and members and their families. Trump also took action on building a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.

Trump’s orders will harm many AFT members and millions of our students, patients, families, friends and neighbors.

We—our country and our union—are better than this.

Damn right we are.

Please call the AFT at (202) 879-4400 and thank them for standing up for professors, for graduate students, and for their children.

As a side note, some of you may know that I work for Harvard. While I don’t agree with everything that has come from the administration this past year, I do want to acknowledge and appreciate the e-mail that went out to our community this past weekend. Here’s an excerpt from that:

Our robust commitment to internationalism is not an incidental or dispensable accessory.  It is integral to all we do, in the laboratory, in the classroom, in the conference hall, in the world.  It fuels the capacity of universities to spur innovation, to advance scholarship and scientific discovery, and to help address society’s hardest challenges.  It is a crucial ingredient in making American higher education a singular national asset, the destination of choice for countless scholars and students whose contributions serve our nation and our world.  …  Nearly half of the deans of Harvard’s schools are immigrants—from India, China, Northern Ireland, Jamaica, and Iran.  Benefiting from the talents and energy, the knowledge and ideas of people from nations around the globe is not just a vital interest of the University; it long has been, and it fully remains, a vital interest of our nation. 

It’s good to wake up to some support. You might want to check out http://undocumented.harvard.edu/, where the university is providing legal resources for its undocumented immigrant students.

Cabinet reminders

As a reminder, hearings are continuing this week on President Trump’s cabinet nominations. Please call your senators. This is one of the most effective things you can do to support those who are doing the right thing, and to sway those who are about to make a mistake.

Under consideration this week are Ms. DeVos (Education), Mr. Price (HHS), and Mr. Pruitt (EPA), and they are homophobic, anti-healthcare, and a climate-change denier, respectively.

If you need a script to help when you call, I highly recommend the guide at https://www.indivisibleguide.com/

If you need a phone number, you can call 202-224-3121 to get a switchboard that will connect you to the senator of your choice, or you can check the Senate Phone Directory if you’d rather call directly. You can also call their state offices if you prefer.

Health and Human Services

It’s really difficult to teach a starving student.

It’s hard to teach a sick student, or one who hasn’t gotten enough sleep. They’re low on energy. Their minds are slower. They forget more easily. They miss classes or fall asleep during them.

It’s even harder when a student drops out of school to provide for an ailing parent. It’s heartbreaking.

This is one reason to oppose Rep. Tom Price’s nomination as Secretary of Health and Human Services. Tom Price has worked – and is still working – to repeal the ACA, which provides healthcare for some of our most vulnerable students. Millions of students rely on programs like Medicaid, which Mr. Price is also working to dismantle. Millions more of their parents do as well.

If we want a healthy school, full of bright, alert students, we can’t do that without someone taking care of them at home.

The AFT has started a petition to oppose Rep. Price’s nomination. You can also contact your senator or representative and ask them to involve themselves in the support of the ACA, Medicaid, and other health programs.

Office of Management and Budget

Massachusetts is a state known for its education and for its science research. We have eight institutions classified as “Research 1“, including MIT, Harvard, and Tufts. All of them rely on government funding for basic science research.

The currently proposed nominee for the Office of Management and Budget is Rep. Mick Mulvaney, who does not believe that the government should be in the business of funding science research.

Imagine MIT without basic science research. Now imagine CalTech, Berkeley, UIUC, Duke, Ohio State, Georgetown, Stanford, Yale, USC, and every other university in the USA ending up without funding for research in science, engineering, mathematics, and computer science.

This is called a “brain drain.” Scientists who cannot find funding will go where they can find it. If they don’t want to work in the corporate world (and many of us don’t), they’ll find it in Canada. Or the UK. Or anywhere. If you believe that the US should be great when it comes to science and education, losing some of our best scientists is a crummy way to start that.

To contact your governor, you can start at USA.gov, or you can probably find the office phone number with a quick Google search. Call. Ask them to speak out against this.

The AP Stands Up

Quick post today: If you’re writing news articles and hoping to get picked up by larger organizations, the Associated Press is the place to do it right this moment. Here’s why:



…whenever “alt-right” is used in a story, be sure to include a definition: “an offshoot of conservatism mixing racism, white nationalism and populism,” or, more simply, “a white nationalist movement.”

If you would like to contact Reuters (the other major news article supplier) and encourage them to adopt a similar definition in their style guide, their “general contact” phone number is (646) 223-4000. To thank the AP, call (212) 621-1500.

Secretary of Education part II

Welcome back from Thanksgiving.

The new front-runner for Secretary of Education is Betsy DeVos.

Many of you may not know who she is. I certainly didn’t when her name came up, so naturally I did some research.

It turns out that Ms. DeVos is stridently anti-homosexual. She and her immediate family have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight against marriage equality.

I don’t care that she’s not a big fan of public education as it is right now. Neither am I, to be honest. She likes vouchers; that doesn’t bother me. It makes me nervous that she’s been so heavily into religious education, but not so nervous that I would campaign against her on that basis alone. No, what bothers me is that she’s a bigot. Her donations have already damaged the rights of some of the most vulnerable students in our education system, at a time when things were finally starting to look up.

If this bothers you too, please call your union, and then call the other union. Remind them about the Stop the Hate letter, and urge them to put forth a better candidate.

EDIT: The AFT and NEA have both condemned DeVos’ nomination (those links are to their letters). These should be thank-you calls – but also, please urge them to put forth a better candidate.

National Education Association: (202) 833-4000
American Federation of Teachers: (202) 879-4400

AFT responds, and Attorney General

Last week I talked about contacting your union regarding Ben Carson as Secretary of Education. Fortunately, he has withdrawn himself for consideration (with the most bizarre rationale I’ve ever heard). I was going to focus on the Attorney General this week, for reasons I’ll explain below, but it turns out that the AFT has done me one better.

The American Federation of Teachers, in conjunction with the Southern Poverty Law Center, and dozens of other groups (including the NEA and the AFL-CIO!) have signed a letter asking Mr. Trump to denounce hate crimes and reject Steve Bannon as strategist. They also have a public petition, which I encourage you to sign.

So when you call the AFT or NEA this week, please thank them for this. Their phone numbers are at the bottom of this post.

Now, on to the Attorney General. I know some of you may be wondering why an educator (or an education blog) would care about the Attorney General.

Here’s why: Affirmative Action.

Affirmative Action is still necessary.

We do not have racial equality in this nation. We also do not have good mobility between economic classes. Improved education is one of the ways that we push for equality. Whether your parents have a college degree is one of the strongest predictors for whether you will succeed in schooling yourself. Regardless of whether you think everyone should go to college, everyone should at least have the option, because it opens doors for both people and for their children. Affirmative Action is a push for equality, not just in school demographics, but in society at large.

The current front-runner for Attorney General is Senator Jeff Sessions, whose opinion is that the KKK is ok with him. He tried to put that off as a joke. That’s not a joke. He also said, on the record, that he would not characterize grabbing women’s genitals without permission as sexual assault. This is a man who, if appointed, will help to set legal policy in our schools and universities.

It seems unlikely that Mr. Session would support Affirmative Action, which will undoubtedly come under fire in the next few years. It also seems unlikely that he would promote gender equality or women’s on-campus safety in any way.

Here’s the info from the last post. Please thank your unions for the action they’ve taken so far, and ask them to keep it up.

National Education Association: (202) 833-4000
American Federation of Teachers: (202) 879-4400