Doing Science and Loving the Needy

Catherine H. Crouch, Deborah B. Haarsma, and Loren Haarsma
to appear in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 1999

"The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin."

Scripture is full of verses which remind us that the Lord is particularly concerned about the poor and the helpless. As scientists and science teachers, how can we share that concern in the course of our professional work? We spend most of our working hours among the (relatively) privileged and wealthy. Few of us have jobs that directly redress injustices or give support and dignity to the poor.

One way to is to look around our professional world and ask, "Who in this world is poor? Who here suffers from injustice?" It may seem difficult to think of our scientific colleagues this way. It may also seem difficult to think of the non-scientists at our workplaces, such as secretarial and custodial staff, as being part of our professional world. But exploring these questions can also give us new love and compassion for these people.

In asking these questions, we have found a surprising number of answers. Not all of these ideas are appropriate for every person; rather, we hope they will stimulate you to find the specific ways you are called to be part of bringing justice into your professional world. We're eager to hear stories of how you have seen God work within your profession to set the prisoners free and to lift up those who are bowed down.

In today's society, technical knowledge and a college education are increasingly a significant source of economic opportunity and social power.
-Do science education outreach to the general public, elementary schools and high schools. Do this especially at poorer schools and communities with less resources.
-Offer to tutor students who are struggling with science or math. Find such students at your institution, at a local school or children's ministry, or through your church.
-If you are a college or university faculty member, particularly if you are in a position of leadership, be aware of your institution's admissions and financial aid policies. Advocate admission of -- and outreach to -- capable students who are from disadvantaged backgrounds.
-If you work at a prominent institution, offer resources and connections to faculty at community colleges and other less prestigious institutions which tend to serve students from poor backgrounds.

At universities, graduate students and other student employees lack power and need an advocate.
-When hiring students to be research assistants, rather than automatically choosing those with the highest grades and most extensive experience, also look for students who can become just as capable but have lower grades or less experience because of more limited backgrounds.
-Make yourself available to counsel students who are facing difficult career decisions, both your own students and other students in your department. Give particular help and encouragement to those who doubt themselves and their ability.
-Don't assume it's best for all students or post-docs to take "the fast track" to a prestigious research career. Affirm priorities that they have in addition to pursuing science.

At major research universities, some faculty give little time or effort to teaching, or focus their attention primarily on the talented students.
-Teach in a way that challenges and benefits all students, not just the most talented ones. Don't ignore the poor and under-prepared students in your classes. Give them time, and connect them with tutoring and other resources.
-Familiarize yourself with the research done in the last few decades about how students learn science, so you can teach as effectively as possible.

In the research world of academia and industry, power and opportunity are awarded to the best-known and most accomplished groups. The "rich tend to get richer and the poor, poorer" in literal funding dollars, as well as figuratively.
-When looking for research collaborators, don't automatically choose labs with strong reputations, and so try to "hitch your wagon to their star." Look for less well-known collaborators who can do the work just as well.
-When refereeing papers, giving talks, writing review articles, and so forth, give credit to groups who do good work but are less well-known than the "stars" of the field -- especially groups from poorer countries. Be aware of and help publicize good work done at less prestigious schools.

Support staff at our institutions often lack autonomy and may also be poorly compensated for their work.
-Learn the names of support staff whom you see regularly, including cleaning staff. Express appreciation for their work and treat them with dignity. Find out how your institution treats them and advocate fair employment practices. Pray for them.
-When giving work to support staff, think about whether your requests, and especially the time frame for completing them, are reasonable.

The powerful in society often use science and technology at the expense of the powerless.
-Consider the impact your research has on other people, including the social and ethical implications of technologies developed by your discipline (not just your own work). Speak out for developing applications which benefit all of society, not just the rich.
-Think about the needs of the poor and whether work in your own discipline can serve those needs directly. You may be able to chose a research project which directly benefits the poor.
-Ask whether your research activities damage the environment directly or indirectly (such as through production of toxic chemicals), and how you can minimize their impact. Speak out on the need for environmental stewardship within your own research community. Some may be called to study extensively and speak publicly on these issues.
-Be active in your professional societies and encourage them, as institutions, to champion the cause of the oppressed. Many scientific societies already speak out for scientists who are unjustly imprisoned by repressive governments; we can challenge them to advocate justice on a wider scale.

And of course, all of us have lives outside our profession.
-In use of personal money, and in conversations, be aware of the needs of the poor -- especially in countries which often don't "make the news." By our actions we can raise our colleagues' awareness of injustice and prejudice.

Copyright 1999 Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

Return to outline of the series: "Science and Spirituality: Is Harmony Possible?", Last updated April 23, 1999