As students across the U.S. begin the school year, many will find their classrooms changed by politics. More than 19 states, from Idaho to North Carolina, have embraced “educational intimidation” laws or policies. They target discussions on race, gender and sexuality, and will influence all disciplines, including the sciences.
In Florida, presidential contender Governor Ron DeSantis has embraced such educational coercion as an extension of his antiscience agenda. From scrapping with the College Board over the Advanced Placement Psychology course’s gender and sexuality unit to approving antiscience revisionist resources like PragerU for classroom use, Florida has led a nationwide battle against accurate and socially conscious education.
While many Florida bills target K–12 classes, some laws aim at higher education. Since 2022, HB 7 has restricted lessons on race in Florida public schools and universities. Another, SB 266, aims to defund campus diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts, and to eliminate “identity politics” in general education courses. To the DeSantis administration, this includes any classroom or campus discussion of systemic oppression, racism, sexism or privilege. This fall is the first semester both bills will be in effect.
These laws obviously encroach on academic freedom, a major assault to courses and research in history, sociology and the humanities. Yet the damage does not stop there, as general education courses also include those in the natural sciences and mathematics. The SB 266 constraints threaten work toward an equitable science education in Florida and beyond.
While traditional science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) classes may not cover the targeted topics, many educators have begun teaching about how racism, colonialism and sexism have been perpetuated by scientists. Without discussing historical atrocities such as the testing of birth control medication on Puerto Rican women, or the ways in which scientific data, such as facial measurements and genetics, has been used to support racist theories, we risk future generations of scientists lacking knowledge necessary to conduct ethical research or refute dangerous pseudoscience. Non-STEM majors who might take only a few general science courses will lose learning about these problems entirely.
Restrictions on addressing social issues and diversity will only further inequities and underrepresentation in STEM. Many science educators are designing more inclusive curricula in the hopes of increasing diversity and a sense of belonging in the scientific workforce. This includes lessons on the variety of biological underpinnings influencing sex, gender and sexuality, and forming a strong science identity. This could be especially important in general education courses where students explore whether they see themselves in a field.
Additionally, we need to raise STEM students’ awareness of ethical science and instill civic responsibility. This is best done by having discussions about societal issues in the STEM classroom to increase both ethical considerations and engagement with civic issues.
SB 266 states that one of its goals is to ensure that students are “informed citizens” by providing “traditional, historically accurate, and high-quality coursework.” It adds: “Courses with a curriculum based on unproven, speculative, or exploratory content are best suited as [electives].” However, being a truly informed citizen requires awareness of current events, movements, and perspectives. In a high-quality science course, students should learn the latest scientific literature and understand the ways novel findings upend older ones. Scientific advancement requires speculation, so students need to discern trustworthy data and build strong hypotheses based on observations not yet solidified as fact.
Take environmental science, where the climate crisis is a central concern. Any general education environmental science course that ignores it is incomplete, or outright obfuscatory. But, under DeSantis’s administration, politicians could argue that climate change is “speculative.” The law’s subjective wording is concerning. We cannot legislate that a natural science curriculum must educate students on the scientific method if something as evidence-backed as the climate crisis might be outlawed.
Florida’s laws have already hurt university staff recruitment and retention. Staff and faculty are resigning, and job openings are going unfilled. Additionally, Florida is retaliating against those protesting in support of DEI in public schools. In March, five protesters—now known as the “Tampa 5”— were arrested at the University of South Florida while protesting SB 266 and still face charges.
SB 266 limits education only within Florida state lines, but its influence will grow. Several other states have proposed or passed similar bills, such as Texas’s SB 17, which also bans public colleges from spending state funding on DEI offices and initiatives. Only the Florida bill goes as far as to limit classroom speech, but without DEI offices many educators will lack resources to implement challenging concepts and discussions into their curriculum.
In addition to the building effort among like-minded state governments, these tactics to limit academic freedom could affect federal legislation. With DeSantis running in the Republican presidential primary race, his notoriety legitimizes his plans and emboldens others to support similar bills.
To build stronger support networks and activism pipelines, STEM students and professionals can join and organize affinity spaces like Black in Neuro, 500 Queer Scientists and 500 Women Scientists. On the political side, 314 Action is a group that has been supporting scientists interested in running for public office. Individuals can vow to pay attention to legislation both in Florida and other states and hold our governments accountable for attacks on education. The Chronicle of Higher Education has an online tool that tracks anti-DEI legislation being introduced throughout the United States.
Florida’s laws set a dangerous national precedent, and STEM courses and programs cannot exist within such exclusionary and antiscience constraints. Science will be forever tied to social issues, and only the freedom to discuss its impact, the positive and negative, will encourage future scientists to use science for the common good. If our governments, universities and local communities want to invest in STEM, we must condemn legislation that prevents educators from fostering a full and socially conscious science literacy.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.