Three Penn State scientists discussed their roles in community activism and the challenges that go along with that.
Penn State’s Science Policy Society, in collaboration with the Union of Concerned Scientists, hosted a panel discussion on science and community at Schlow Centre Region Library on Thursday.
David Hughes, a professor of entomology; Maggie Douglas, a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Entomology; and Thomas Beatty, a research associate in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, participated in the panel.
Outside of their work at the university, the trio are active in the community — Hughes with the Nittany Valley Water Coalition; Douglas with local beekeepers and farmers to promote pollinator success; and Beatty with Fair Districts PA.
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“Professional scientists are not as engaged as they should be in community affairs,” Hughes said, “and particularly given the extraordinary toolset that we have to go in and critically analyze a problem. I don’t think we do enough of that.”
Hughes has spent the past two years fighting against the Toll Brothers’ proposed student housing development, The Cottages at State College, which is slated to be built along Whitehall Road in Ferguson Township. The water coalition has been in talks with Toll Brothers and Penn State, which owns the land, to try to convince them that the development should go somewhere else.
He said he’s disliked being involved with the water coalition because it’s taken him away from family and work.
“It’s just been painful, horrible and miserable,” Hughes said. “But it’s the right thing to do.”
Among the topics of discussion was the limitation of scientists.
In contentious societal issues that involve science, there are often people with different valid perspectives and values that influence the interpretation of evidence, Douglas said.
“It’s important that we do, as scientists, recognize the limits on what we’re able to do and when it’s veering into a territory that is mostly values,” she said.
By identifying where people agree and building from that starting point, then they can move on to the higher level values where they disagree more and try to sort those out, Beatty said.