North Carolina State University recently cancelled a science-outreach event because the invited speakers have the wrong skin color. It's another example of academic institutions prizing a radical social agenda over education.
“Our lack of desire to communicate science to the public has created major problems for the science community,” the journal Nature reported in June 2016. “It is difficult to generate support from the public and the government if our audience does not understand the importance or relevance of our work.” This is a widely shared concern in the academy six years later; researchers know they have to get into the public square and build rapport with taxpayers and voters. As a team from the University of Cambridge explained recently:
“'Be persuasive,' 'be engaging,' 'tell stories with your science.' Most researchers have heard such exhortations many times, and for good reason. Such rhetorical devices often help to land the message, whether that message is designed to sell a product or win a grant.
The science community clearly recognizes the value of public outreach, yet some prominent figures and institutions within it seem to have a higher priority—virtue signaling their social justice bona fides. Just last week, NC State's Genetic Engineering and Society (GES) Center abruptly canceled a panel discussion designed to teach graduate students how to engage the public. The decision was fueled by a wave of complaints on Twitter alleging that the event featured an “all-white-male panel.”
The controversy and subsequent cancellation would have been perfectly justified if GES had selected panelists in a discriminatory fashion. After reviewing the tweets, the University's rationale for halting the discussion, and speaking with one panelist willing to comment on the specifics of the situation, it's clear to me that no such scandal occurred.
This entire affair was just another example of a broader, disturbing trend: academic institutions compromising their educational mission to appease abusive political activists.
Educational opportunity lost
The GES Center says that it “serves as an international hub of interdisciplinary research, engaged scholarship, and inclusive dialogues surrounding opportunities and challenges associated with genetic engineering and society.” It's a terrific organization performing a valuable service, and this student-organized event seemed like a textbook example of the work GES boasts about.
Advertised as “Narratives and Storytelling in the Public Communication of Science and Technology,” the discussion was to feature three respected science-communication experts: Drs. Dan Kobolt, Michael Dahlstrom, and Kevin Folta—who also chairs his university department's Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access (IDEA) Committee.  The student-organizers asked the panelists to address several critical questions, including:
Can science-fiction books, movies and television shows effectively communicate science to the public?
How do these media influence the public's understanding of technologies such as genetic engineering?
Do creators in these spaces have an obligation to get the facts right, and should academics correct their scientific misunderstandings when they don't?
The answers to these questions would have helped equip an audience of future scientists with the tools they need to engage the public. So why exactly were these students denied a useful educational opportunity?
An “all-white manel”
The GES Center canceled the event the day before it was scheduled to take place after a handful of complaints on Twitter alleged that the speakers were “problematic” and the panel wasn't inclusive enough. There is no evidence that the objections came from individuals registered to attend the discussion, or even affiliated with the university. “Between the all-white-male panel and the highly problematic participants, this is a disappointing move by @GESCenterNCSU,” one Twitter user wrote.
The GES Center initially and valiantly tried to defend the event, explaining that its student-members selected the panelists, and that all its previous events featured a diverse array of speakers:
“... this is the first all-white male panel we've had in ages. If you look at our lecture library you'll see that we value diversity in our speakers. Also the panel is organized by our very diverse group of grad students.”
Folta corroborated this perspective in an email to ACSH:
A student contacted me and asked if I could share my experience in constructing effective scientific narratives in science communication efforts. It’s an area of expertise, a facet of my training stemming from 35 years in public science, and a significant background in communication strategy. He was part of a student group, so I was excited to accept. I make student invitations a priority.
None of these facts mattered as the controversy gained momentum on social media. “Behold the attempted defense of an all-white manel in its natural habitat,” another Twitter user retorted.
The GES Center ultimately caved under political pressure and announced the change of plans in a March 28 newsletter:
The primary reason for the cancellation was that one of the panelists recently informed us that his university had barred him from speaking on its behalf regarding the subject matter of the panel. There was also a lack of gender and racial diversity among the panelists ...
GES postponed the panel discussion until the fall 2022 semester, adding that the delay would provide needed “time to reorganize so we can ensure a productive discourse with a panel that is both more representative of the GES community, and in keeping with our Statement on Productive, Inclusive, and Ethical Communication.” The Center's communications director reaffirmed the same explanation in an email to ACSH.
Neither justification is compelling.The “barred” panelist, Dr. Kevin Folta, didn't commit an offense that merited cancellation. Alongside more than 30 other academic scientists in 2015, he was targeted by an anti-GMO group that obtained his emails through a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request and used them to allege that Monsanto had hired him to defend its products.
The allegation was false, though it generated a front-page New York Times story and continued FOIA requests and attacks, both professional and personal, meant to discredit Folta. As a result, his school, the University of Florida (UF), told him to cease his science-outreach work in 2019. "It is not your job," Folta said, recounting the administration's reasoning at the time.
Folta gave up his science-communication projects for a few months, then opted to restart them as a private citizen with no institutional backing. “I was very clear about no university affiliation, because I love research, adore working with students and farmers in my state," he added in his email. "I wasn't going to risk that by doing something against the wishes of the administration, even though I vehemently disagreed with them.”
In short, UF wanted to avoid additional negative press from the FOIA campaign—hardly a valid reason for NC State to halt the panel discussion. The University of Florida has since rescinded its restrictions on Folta's science-communication efforts.
Compromise has consequences
The cancellation at NC State is just one example in a larger trend of universities, medical journals and health care providers kowtowing to militant activists to avoid scandal. This may keep an institution out of hot water temporarily, but it has devastating long-term consequences. The political crusade to promote ill-defined “social justice” has robbed scientists of their jobs, distorted research methods in health care, and silenced many scientists and physicians who reject the new orthodoxy. Even Charles Darwin, once revered for his theory of evolution, has been posthumously accused of promoting racism under the guise of doing science.
This is all absurd, of course, because science dies if researchers are restrained by political censorship. As the ACLU argued in 2007, “For science to advance, knowledge must be shared. Without the free exchange of ideas, science as we understand it cannot exist and progress.”
The bigger problem for our purposes here is that social justice activism will be the death knell of science communication. The Atlantic reported last November that a majority of Americans believe our country has become too politically correct; most of us also affirm that “cancel culture is a big problem in society.” If the science community continues to wilt in the face of dubious criticism from a loud but small cohort of progressive activists, it could sever academia's already tenuous relationship with the public.
Everybody else loses when the bullies win. Or as Folta put it in his email to ACSH: “In an academic institution you can't give in to terrorists.”
 Full disclosure: I co-host the Science Facts and Fallacies podcast with Kevin Folta.