Science Hill protest

To: Science Hill Colleagues

From: Steve Thorsett, dean of Physical & Biological Sciences

For many of us, the last two weeks have been an unsettling and difficult period. Protests that began with frightening violence and with graffiti, vandalism, and false fire alarms have given way to a lower-level buzz, with the continued unsafe presence of thousands of pounds of people and materials up in trees near the core of Science Hill, the blockage of a parking lot including all of the handicapped and medical parking for the Physical Sciences Building, the environmentally destructive removal of deadfall wood from the ravines, the exposure of grounds staff to human waste, and the occasional threatening encounter with masked and unidentified squatters. As the recent message from EVC Kliger emphasized, the current situation is intolerable. While the campus leadership continues their discussions with the protesters, and works towards what we all hope will be a peaceful resolution, I wanted to share some of my own thoughts.

The goals of the protests are not sharply defined. Statements point to general campus growth, the lack of an ethnic studies department, concern over the future of the campus trailer park, unhappiness with the University's role in the management of the weapons labs, and general discontent with the Regents. But I believe that at the core of the protests is a disagreement over the role of science at UC Santa Cruz.

The immediate flash point is the development of the Biomedical Sciences Building. It is important to put this building in context. First, the campus has recently completed several major construction projects, including a new humanities and social sciences complex, and significant new student housing capacity. Other projects now underway include an expansion of McHenry Library that is by some measures the biggest project ever undertaken on campus, a new building for Digital Arts, and new faculty housing. Of these recent projects, only Biomedical Sciences is focused on science.

Second, the building committee, which included student members, has designed a "green" lab building to be placed on an already-disturbed site, and sized and oriented to preserve as many existing trees as possible. The building plan includes replanting, to replace the second-growth redwoods that are currently the focus of the tree sitters.

Finally, the building will primarily house biology and chemistry faculty who we need to hire to meet the needs of the students who are already here. In this respect, the protesters have a valid point. We have far more biology majors than we did a decade ago, with a faculty size that is essentially unchanged, leading to many more students per faculty member. We must hire more life scientists, and we can only do that if we can provide them with office and laboratory space. Our only real option is to limit access to a UC science education to the next generation of students, meeting the needs of neither our students nor the State of California.

These facts are lost in the materials and press statements made by the anti-science protesters, who paint an unrecognizable picture of science as a shadowy world controlled by military and corporate puppetmasters. In truth, most of the funding for our division comes from the state, from peer-reviewed federal grants, and from private gifts by individuals and foundations. There is no significant corporate or military funding for the construction of Biomedical Sciences. I am particularly disturbed by the way that individual faculty are named and characterized in the literature and public statements of the protesters.

We must resist these attempts to dehumanize science and to alienate it from the rest of the university. Math and science have been at the core of the liberal arts since antiquity, and the profound importance of science as a way of understanding our world is something we hope that every UC Santa Cruz student will encounter and appreciate. Biology is the most popular grouping of majors on campus; these and other students in the sciences are as much Banana Slugs as those who are now claiming to represent the "dream of radical political transformation" of a mythical past.

I know a great many of the people on Science Hill, and I know how deeply you are engaged not just in your science and teaching, but also in the social and political challenges we face. I know many of you who volunteer your time and give your money towards environmental action and poverty reduction, not to mention in support of arts and culture such as Shakespeare Santa Cruz and educational programs such as the marine science outreach at Long Marine Lab. I know of colleagues here engaged at the national level in discussions on ethics in science, and I have myself spent considerable time and energy in Oakland successfully protecting UC's principles of open access in research against federal pressures after the attacks of 9/11. I do not recognize the caricatures of the "corporatized" scientists described in the "Long Range Resistance" materials.

It is the responsibility of every one of us to speak out in the face of ignorance and fear, and to refuse to tolerate destructive or threatening behavior. I know that we have differing opinions within our community on some important questions, including whether UC Santa Cruz should continue to grow. But I also believe that we have shared values rooted in the ideals of the university and of our disciplines. These include the importance of open debate and discussion, the willingness to question both our data and our assumptions, and the protection of the academic freedom of our colleagues to pursue their research unthreatened.

I would like to encourage each of you to make a special effort to engage with your colleagues around campus -- students, staff and faculty -- and with your neighbors in the community, to talk about the tremendous work we are doing here on Science Hill. Let people know about our research into the fundamental building blocks of matter, and about the structure of the Universe. Let people know about our work on the causes and effects of global warming, and our more local efforts to understand and protect the environment of the Central Coast. Let people know about our programs like Cal Teach, training the next generation of high school math and science teachers, and Health Sciences, training students to meet the health care needs of a multicultural state. And most importantly, let people know about the important work being done by those who will be in the new Biomedical Sciences Building: studying cholera, heavy metal pollution, and other health scourges of the developing world; understanding Alzheimer's and neurodegenerative diseases; decoding the normal functioning of cells, and how those functions go awry in cancer; and advancing the genomic techniques that will one day allow both highly personalized, safer, and more effective medicines and a better understanding of the diversity of life on Earth.

At this time of Thanksgiving, I am grateful for your patience over the last few weeks, and particularly proud of our Science Hill community. Have a great long weekend!