Science and Society

The setting sun illuminates the Andes Mountains across the bay of Valparaiso as I gaze out my window, and I am amazed. We have just voted to make a new constitution. This document will replace the constitution of the dictatorship imposed forty years ago and will be formed by the people of the country, not the politicians. For Chile this is a moment of great hope, there is a release of the underlying tension caused by the social violence that has wracked the country; we now have to concentrate on the task at hand.

But it is difficult to concentrate against the backdrop of the worldwide pandemic, a situation that has touched many of us as we ourselves get sick or watch friends and family suffer, and in some tragic cases die alone. We struggle mentally to “reorganize” the priorities in life and contemplate the future.

Through conversations with colleagues in IZFS it is evident that the mental struggle has been heavy for those trying to advance in their scientific training. Although many institutions have extended time limits for completion of doctorate degrees, this does not always come with an extension of funding. Furthermore, the uncertainty of the future is always greater when you are isolated in a workspace. Where before you learned from others and your fellow graduate students understood both the high and the low points of scientific investigation, now you work alone.

The stress increases with postdocs. Many have families and women often bear the brunt of childcare. Some colleagues are in situations with childcare assistance, but this does not appear to be common. The postdoc era is a crucial moment when one must be productive. “Lack of productivity” means lack of employment, prestige, and advancement in your field. We can only hope the funding agencies will help with extensions and potential employers understand the broad range of problems brought on by quarantine and social distancing.

As one ascends the academic pyramid, as we like to call it here in Chile, some Principal Investigators grapple with delays in funding, budget cuts, loss of lines in their fish facilities while others, as of yet unaffected, look warily to the future, planning for the eventuality of budget cuts in an a economy bruised by the pandemic. Some question priorities, with so many people out of work, where do we, the scientists, fit in?

I am deeply thankful: I have the education needed to sort through the morass of information on the biological effects of the virus, ignoring the sea of misinformation on social media, and share this knowledge with others. I ponder the balance of knowledge and fear: with knowledge comes understanding and with understanding one conquers ignorance and fear. How lucky I am to have had such a good (public) education.

On a very basic level I am, we are, so fortunate to work as scientists, to have jobs that give us freedom to think, to pursue ideas, and quite frankly to receive a salary. Here in Chile many are without work. The all too familiar sound of the doorbell ringing signals the need for money or food. Yes, I am, we are, very fortunate: but where are we going? What role will scientists play in a world that is rapidly changing, and in the opinion of some, unraveling? Here in Chile the government cut the science budget by 9% across the board while increasing the funding for the military. [Remember the quote “It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber”? (1)]

I ask colleagues about life in general: in certain countries we walk the razor’s edge where we think facts are important, yet the qualities of truth are strained. We are worried as we watch authoritarian governments rise across the world. In Chile I live with the terrible effects of an authoritarian government on education (and all aspects of society) and have watched as my native country (USA) spiraled into maelstrom of ignorance built on fear and hatred. We remind ourselves that Democracies can only survive with an educated populace and our role as scientists in the web of education is essential.

Finally, as a neurobiologist, I feel that my nervous system is screaming; glued to the screen it is deprived of texture, scents of carbon-based life, sounds that do not come through a speaker, confused by the false shadows of light not cast, the illumination that is not reflected, but emitted. I have grown to dislike my computer screen, but at the same time I cling to this very screen, I can “visit” my family and friends near and far, hear their voices, see that they are well. If anything the pandemic has reminded us that life is brief and not to be squandered…as one colleague wrote….”we need to hurry up, as the time is short and we don’t know what may happen tomorrow...”

Keep well,
KE Whitlock
Valparaiso, Chile
November 16, 2020

(1) Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) 1979

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