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Ethical Debate: Evolution, the big easy, and putting your money where your mouth is

One of my favorite parts of being a scientist is attending conferences. In addition to getting feedback on your research from leaders in your field and staying current on other people’s work, conferences are a lot of fun. When the daily sessions end, it’s basically a bunch of cool people who share your interests looking to have a good time after a long day. While most people (including myself) care more about the knowledge transfer than the celebrations (exhibit A- I’m going to a conference in Minnesota next summer) , I’ve known more than a few people who have chosen not to go to certain conferences because the host city was “boring”. This makes it all the more surprising that the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB), one of the largest scientific societies in the United States, announced that their 2011 conference would be held in Salt Lake City and not New Orleans (as had originally been proposed).

Guess which city this celebration took place in? Image from NowPublic.com

Many SICB members had been looking forward to another New Orleans conference for years. Salt Lake City is harder to get to for East Coast residents and isn’t exactly on anyone’s list of the most fun cities on the planet. What was new SICB President Richard Satterlie thinking?

Rich, who I had the privilege to meet last spring, explains his reasoning in a public letter to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (once a Republican rising star before his train wreck of a State of the Union response):

“We will not hold the Society’s 2011 annual meeting in New Orleans…the Executive Committee voted to hold the 2011 meeting in Salt Lake City in large part because of legislation SB 561, which you signed into law in June 2008….the SICB leadership could not support New Orleans as our meeting venue because of the official position of the state in weakening science education and specifically attacking evolution in science curricula”

What is this SB 561 that Rich refers to? The National Center for Science  Education explains:

“Senate Bill 561, styled the ‘Louisiana Academic Freedom Act’…evidently based on a string of similar bills in Alabama as well as on a model bill that the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, the institutional home of “intelligent design” creationism…Contending that “the teaching of some scientific subjects, such as biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy, and that some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on such subjects,” the bill extends permission to Louisiana’s teachers to “help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught.”

In other words, SB 561 encourages science teachers in Louisiana public schools to teach intelligent design. In fact, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, “State Sen. Ben Nevers, who introduced the measure, is known for repeatedly trying to push legislation promoting creationism. In 2002, he even voted in favor of a measure declaring Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution to be the cause for racism.”

Rich Satterlie chose to move the SICB conference from a state whose government is against teaching evolution in schools to a state whose government “recently passed a resolution that states that evolution is central to any science curriculum”. Scientists often complain about anti-science and anti-evolution policies, and Rich is using his authority as SICB President to put approximately 2,000 scientists’ money where our collective mouths are. 2,000 people spending several days in a city can have a major economic impact (those people have to stay in a hotel, eat at restaurants, etc), and Rich chose to move this impact elsewhere.

This decision made quite a splash, getting coverage in the local press, the  New York Times and the editorial pages of several leading scientific journals.

National creationist groups like the Discovery Institute slammed Satterlie, saying “SICB’s censorship is the real “anti-science initiative” that ‘weakens science education.’…You guys are utterly dependent on taxpayers, most of whom are creationists of one stripe or another, and most of whom rank Darwinists on an ethical scale somewhere below Caribbean hedge fund operators. They think you’re a bunch of atheist brownshirts…Your arrogance and disrespect for academic freedom demeans the scientific profession, and your boycott of people who don’t capitulate to your censorship is risible.”

Rich told me that he received letters from New Orleans residents asking  him to reconsider his stance. The  city is still reeling economically from Hurricane Katrina, and the boycott hurts people who live in the city much more than it hurts the state government.

One group that didn’t react very much was the Louisiana state government. The only reaction I could find was this snarky quote (as reported in the New Orleans Times Picayune)- “‘That’s too bad,’ Jindal spokesman Kyle Plotkin said of the group’s decision. ‘New Orleans is a first-class city for a convention.’ Plotkin said the governor did not respond to Satterlie’s letter.”

Do you think that Rich Satterlie and SICB made the right move?

Will moving scientific conferences away from places whose governments attack science discourage those attacks?

Would science education have been better served by a SICB meeting in New Orleans complete with open-to-the-public lectures about evolution?

Should the fact that New Orleans was already hurting economically have played a role in their decision?

Is the Discovery Institute correct that scientists shouldn’t do things like this as long as we take grant money from tax-paying creationists?

Bonus question for any SICB members who read this- how did you feel about learning that your 2011 meeting would be in Salt Lake City instead of New Orleans?