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Researcher spearheads effort to unite academics around shared values

christopher-burns-194373If you work in science or academia, you may have spotted a letter circulating online. Titled "Commitment to Democratic Values," the open letter is straight-forward and concise, calling for academics to rally around three statements:

  • Inclusivity and diversity enrich our society and strengthen our nation
  • Reasoned debate based on facts and knowledge advances civilization
  • Freedom of expression inspires creativity and encourages innovation

So far, the letter has amassed more than 800 signatures from faculty, staff and students at more than 130 institutions since its March 21 publication date. The first name belongs to the letter's author, Stanford neuroscientist E.J. Chichilnisky, PhD, who told me this is his first foray into activism. He said his preference, like that of many scientists, has been to keep out of politics. But now, he said he feels like that is no longer the best choice.

"I think the situation is serious enough that we can't just retreat to the lab or classroom and hope the policymakers sort this out. Our mission is all about investing in the future, in the things that really matter," Chichilnisky told me.

Yet Chichilnisky didn't want to let his personal views color the letter. So he keep it short and positive, aiming for unity.

"I think academics are in fact really unified in thinking that things are not in a good place," Chichilnisky said. "We value education and facts and reason. We value letting everyone participate. We value the free exchange of ideas."

Colleges and universities remain powerful institutions in today's splintered landscape, he said. "They can and should make a difference." And although individual universities, such as Stanford, have spoken out against recent actions including federal immigration policy changes, Chichilnisky said he believes it is important for faculty members, staff and students from a wide range of universities to work together.

He has a lot of ideas for potential uses of the letter. It could be used to reach out to the public via newspaper ads or to individual policymakers. At some point, he might judiciously tap the email list to organize specific efforts. He hopes to use it to reach out to multi-university organizations such as the Association of American Universities and to organizations that represent scientists and other academics.

But first, he hopes to gather many, many signatures. He's pleased with progress so far, which was propelled by email and a few social media posts.

And he understands concerns that some academics — particularly those who are not U.S. citizens or who are in the midst of grant applications — feel about coming out publicly. He said he shares their worries. For those who feel able, his response is motivational: "We can't be afraid in these times... It's time to stand up."

Previously: Stanford postdoctoral fellow creates "resistor hat" for March for Science, Doctor at Women's March: "I marched to make sure my patients' voices would be heard" and Stanford Medicine students and faculty share immigration stories
Photo by Christopher Burns

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