This Saturday’s March for Science is putting scientists around the country in the spotlight, including an atmospheric chemist in Pittsburgh.

Neil Donahue has been outspoken on proposed federal budget cuts for research at the EPA and NASA. He says he doesn’t see any conflict for scientists when they speak out in this way.

“I am not taking a stand for specific political outcomes.  What I am saying is that as a scientist, I am under an ethical responsibility to seek and question the truth. And when that is taken lightly, I don’t take that lightly. I am not bothered by standing up and saying this is in fact what we understand.”

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Not His First Rodeo

Donahue has been through attacks on science before. “It’s not my first rodeo,” he says. During the Reagan administration, he was researching stratospheric ozone chemistry.

“Reagan was elected in 1980. By 1981 we were seeing cuts in EPA.  There was widespread push pack that freon was destroying ozone. And then the ozone hole appeared!”

Donahue says it took Reagan and Margaret Thatcher seeing the enormous hole in the ozone layer to do something about it. It also helped that Ronald Reagan had a skin cancer scare around this time.  

Hopes for the March

Thousands are expected at the march in Pittsburgh this weekend. Donahue has a few hopes for what will come out of it.

“I hope people will talk to people. I hope people will vote. But mostly I’d like there to be public discourse.  What I want people to do is think critically. Don’t just grab a fact because it’s a fact that agrees with your tribe.”

The consequences of solving the problem of climate change are, for Donahue, an optimistic story with positive consequences.  He makes the point that there are 1500 heart attack deaths every year in Allegheny County. About 10 percent of those are caused by fine particulate matter. And 75% of the fine particles in the Pittsburgh area are from the combustion of fossil fuels.

“As we decarbonize the economy; as we find other ways of producing energy; we’re not going to have that air pollution.  And, yes, energy use is connected to every part of the way that we run our lives. But we know how to get energy and make use of it in ways that don’t involve climate change.”

Donahue says that the idea that there are two sides to the “climate debate” is not new. But scientists’ understanding of climate change is extremely robust.  And he resents that it is being used as a political football.

“I am an educator. I have worked on questions on environmental science for a very long time. So actually I would feel bad if I didn’t stand up and talk.”

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Reporting by Kara Holsopple