Open Letters

An open letter about the 2024 annual meeting

If we’re meeting in Texas, we need to take action
Daniel Herschlag
By Daniel Herschlag
Dec. 12, 2023

ASBMB Today provides a forum for members of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology to share their thoughts and opinions. This open letter expresses the views of the author and does not reflect the official policy or positions of the ASBMB. It was submitted in response to an ASBMB president's message about the 2024 annual meeting in San Antonio.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  ― Martin Luther King

In recent years, the government of Texas, the site of the upcoming ASBMB meeting, has enacted policies that systematically deprive women of their rights, that censor speech and ban books, and that disenfranchise and oppress immigrants and minority groups, and endanger the lives of individuals. These policies raise moral issues around holding an event that brings publicity and revenue to Texas.

The ASBMB has made arguments for keeping the meeting in Texas, but there are also reasons not to. The easiest decision is always to stay the course, but it is not always the wisest.

If this meeting is to go on as planned, I call on the ASBMB to take strong, meaningful action in support those who are directly and indirectly under attack.

The society’s president released a statement acknowledging Texas’ discriminatory laws in the September issue of ASBMB Today and pledged inclusion and “opportunities for us to demonstrate our commitment to scientific and social progress and to advocate for policies that protect academic freedom and the most vulnerable.” Nevertheless, the ASBMB followed, in the November issue of ASBMB Today, by extolling the virtues of and entertainment available in San Antonio, without restating and redoubling the society’s commitment to social justice and those most vulnerable and without a parallel discussion of plans or proposals for concrete action.

 Words are an inadequate response to policies that target individuals, harm communities and limit the voice of science in society. It is imperative that we all directly and actively support those among us who are direct targets of these laws and the values of individual freedom, equality, and democracy that we collectively believe in.

Actions that might have meaning and impact include: 

  • hand out at least one banned book to each ASBMB meeting participant (donations would likely more than cover the cost);
  • organize educational sessions (lectures or panel discussions) by scientists who are directly involved in research in critical race theory, sexual and gender orientation (and the consequences of restrictive laws and policies), and the impact of abortion bans that impose the will of a minority on the autonomy of over half of our population;
  • raise funds for local groups that support abortion access, gun safety, LGBTQIA+ rights, freedom of speech, and the rights of immigrants and historically underrepresented groups. 

Too often, workshops on discrimination, equity and social justice are attended almost exclusively by members of underrepresented groups, and it is well documented that scientists within these groups pay a tax against their careers to educate others.

To encourage support from and education of all ASBMB members, events dedicated to social justice, the support of targeted individuals and groups, and the voice of science in society should be platform events, not in competition with scientific sessions. 

Science and education have never been more vital to our democracy — or more threatened. While acknowledging the past mistakes of science, and their (sometimes) devastating consequences on America’s most vulnerable, we need science and scientists to provide reasoned, data-based models, thoughtful debate, and nuanced problem-solving to contend with the crises of today. Yet, many scientists remain silent. 

A free society requires a free exchange of ideas. I call on members of the ASBMB to speak out and to take action supporting those who are directly and indirectly under attack — in Texas and elsewhere.

Science is a valuable tool to help us learn about the world around us — and change it. The scientific method provides a means to separate assumptions from observations, to build and test models, and to guide discussions and decision-making. 

Science is not just about facts. It's a way of thinking and interacting. Even as scientists it is difficult to avoid bias in our thinking and to engage in open scientific discussions. To help us do so, I recommend the following three articles:

Others have said more succinctly and powerfully what I have tried to express here. I hope their words will inspire you as individuals and us as a group to action:

“Freedom is never granted; it is won.” ― A. Philip Randolph (1972) Epigraph, "A. Philip Randolph, a Biographical Portrait"

“Activism works. So what I’m telling you to do now, is to act. Because no one is too small to make a difference.” ― Greta Thunberg (2019) Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Acceptance Speech

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Daniel Herschlag
Daniel Herschlag

Dan Herschlag is a professor of biochemistry, professor of chemical engineering and a ChEM-H Institute fellow at Stanford University. He has been an ASBMB member since 1994 and received the ASBMB William Rose Award in 2010.
 

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