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The Teenaged "Troublemaker" Fighting For Science


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY; I'm Flora Lichtman. OK, it's time to feel like an underachiever. What were you doing when you were 19? Like me, you probably weren't, oh, appearing on national talk shows, debating the value of science education or calling up Nobel Prize winners and asking them to sign your petition.

Well lucky for us, some teenagers are busier than others. My next guest is one of them. Zack Kopplin is an undergraduate at Rice University and an activist for the cause of science education. He joins us from KUHF in Houston. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ZACHARY KOPPLIN: Thanks for having me on, Flora, it's great to be here.

LICHTMAN: Thanks for joining us. So you're at Rice right now. What year are you, and what are you studying?

KOPPLIN: I'm a sophomore history major, actually.

LICHTMAN: And I think I read that you're taking next year off.

KOPPLIN: Yeah, I'm going to take next year off because I'm ready to start an organization to launch the next phase of our movement for science.

LICHTMAN: Tell me about that.

ZACHARY KOPPLIN: So we're ready - the big thing now is America has a science problem. We're cutting science funding. We've cut $50 billion from science over the next five years. We have denialist legislation like the Louisiana Science Education Act that I've been fighting in Louisiana. Tennessee has a copycat bill, and there's bills introduced all around the country based on Louisiana's law.

KOPPLIN: And so there's these two problems that we need to take on to change how science is done in America. And so we're taking inspiration from Neil Armstrong's famous words when he first stepped foot on the moon, and we're calling for a second giant leap for humankind.

LICHTMAN: How do you intend to make that leap?

KOPPLIN: So we need to reverse the budget sequester that cut $50 billion, and we also, beyond that, we need to start funding a lot more science. I want to see $1 trillion over the next 10 years. And while that sounds like a lot of money, it's actually - first, there's a huge return on investment whenever we fund science. So it's actually, in the (unintelligible) budget deficit, it actually makes sense to spend more money on science because it'll pay itself off.

KOPPLIN: And then make sure that all across the country, students are learning about evolution, learning about climate change, learning about vaccines, learning about the science they need to know so when they go into the job market, they'll actually go and do good evidence-based science and help our country.

LICHTMAN: If you have a question for Zack Kopplin, give us a call, 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. So I want to play a clip. It's a small part of your appearance on "Real Time with Bill Maher." And the first person we hear talking is economist Stephen Moore, and he's talking about funding for science. And then you answer him. Here it is.


STEPHEN MOORE: You think things like when the National Science Foundation spends money on snail mating habits, that's a good use of taxpayer dollars, right?

KOPPLIN: We've been over this. You're not a scientist.


LICHTMAN: Zack, that's quite a zinger. Did you practice that?

KOPPLIN: Not at all, but it was true. I mean, I actually recently talked to the scientists who did the snail mating research, and it turns out that can help about I think it was 250 million people in the developing world avoid diseases. So I mean, I didn't know that when I said that, but I thought that there might be a purpose for actually funding the study, and it turns out there's a great one.

LICHTMAN: Well there's also curiosity-based research, I mean...

KOPPLIN: Absolutely, that too.

LICHTMAN: There's a place for that, too. You know, when I was watching that clip, it was amazing to me that you really were able to hold your own so well. And I wondered how you get ready for that. Do you do - do you practice? How do you think about that in advance?

KOPPLIN: You just, you read a lot of stuff about your issue and make sure you know it back and forth. And the thing is I believe that - I believe 100 percent of what I'm doing, and I know what I need to say. I know what is right, and I just say what's right, and it doesn't really go beyond that for me.

LICHTMAN: Do you think people discriminate against you because you're 19?

KOPPLIN: So there - like, so sometimes it's exciting that there's a 19-year-old doing this, and it gets people interested. Other times they say hey, he doesn't have a Ph.D., he doesn't know what he's talking about. And so it cuts both ways. But I am 19. I can't change that until I grow older. So I have to work with it.


LICHTMAN: That's a good point. So what are your plans for your future? Have you thought far ahead, beyond next year? I'm thinking, you know, do you want to go into politics?

KOPPLIN: So I think this fight for science is one that's not going to end in my lifetime. We can always fund more science. We're always going to have people who don't understand evidence-based science and are going to try and subvert it, especially in our public sphere. So I think I'm going to continue doing this as long as I live, as long as I want to.

LICHTMAN: What is it about science that moves you so much? I mean, there are so many injustices in the world. Why focus on science?

KOPPLIN: Because it's really my generation is going to have to deal with things like climate change. We heard earlier on the show about how we fight these bacteria that are resistant to our antibiotics. Those are real things we're going to have to deal with. And if we don't do science, we're not going to - we're not going to be able to survive these challenges.

KOPPLIN: And on a more personal note, I was born without a sense of smell. I would love to have someone - have someone do science to fix that. And it's like, it's these things where it's - that's how we advance our species. That's what we need to do. So that's why I care about it.

LICHTMAN: What's your college life like? Do you spend most of your free time doing appearances like this, or what - just give us a day in the life of Zack Kopplin.

KOPPLIN: So, I mean, my friends think this as normal. I see them, they know what I'm doing, but it is a lot - I mean, it's a lot of work, but it's work you have to do because I believe it's right. So I just - I may wake up and go to class and then start writing a piece on why science is important, and that's - it varies by day, but it's all how much can I promote science today.

LICHTMAN: Let's go to the phones. Talib(ph) in Washington, D.C., do you have a question?

TALIB: Yes, I do. First of all, I want to congratulate our young colleague for really going out and laying his body on the line, if you will. And I would just encourage him first of all to consider maybe changing his major to one of the science majors because we have a shortage of people who graduate from our colleges with bachelors of science degrees. We have a need for about 120,000 per year but only graduate about 40,000 of them.

And I'd like to also offer that my organization STEMforUS, which is also a new organization which was created to advocate and push for science funding, we've been looking at the fact that the president in his budget has suggested consolidating all of the funding for STEM from the many agencies that currently work on STEM efforts to just three, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Education and the Smithsonian Institute.

And we're particularly concerned about the fact that he mentioned Neil Armstrong, that NASA, which has been one of the leaders in STEM after-school programs and internships and grants for educators, is being stripped of its STEM, you know, mandate. And I'd like to get his feedback on that.

LICHTMAN: STEM, so that's science, technology...

TALIB: Engineering and math.


KOPPLIN: So actually there's two things I think I should address in there. The first is I'm not - I think I'm not going to be a Nobel laureate scientist, for example. I shouldn't be a science major. But if I can help create the funding, create the education for 1,000 more Nobel laureates, I can do immensely more on that than I can do being a scientist myself.

KOPPLIN: But on the STEM funding, I think it goes back to the current climate we're in, where it's all about cut, cut, cut. And we're not thinking about this. Science offers a return on investment. And so if we fund science, we'll make that money back. And we shouldn't be cutting, we should be funding it. And it's a problem.

LICHTMAN: Tell us how you got started with your crusade for science.

KOPPLIN: Back in high school, when I was a sophomore in high school, my state passed a law, the misnamed and misguided Louisiana Science Education Act. This law allows critiques using supplemental materials of evidence-based science that's politically controversial, not scientifically controversial, like evolution and climate change.

KOPPLIN: And I knew this law was wrong, but I expected an adult would stand up and fight it. And after about two years, I realized no one's standing up, I'm a senior in high school, and I'm about to leave the state. This is my last chance to fight this law, fight for what I know is right. So I stood up, letter campaign to repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act, and we just started gathering scientists from across the country to support us.

KOPPLIN: I started out by emailing Sir Harry Kroto, a Nobel laureate scientist, and I was a shy high school kid, and Sir Harry emails me back and wants to talk on the phone with me.


KOPPLIN: It's like I didn't even know what to do at that point. And I had a letter drafted from Nobel laureate scientists to the Louisiana Legislature. He talked with me. We got - I woke up the next morning, and he had talked to 10 of his friends and got them to sign the letter to. And so we just, we launched with that. We helped protect biology textbooks in Louisiana, and we've had a bill for the last two years now sponsored by Senator Karen Carter Peterson to repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act.

KOPPLIN: We haven't - we haven't been successful. We lost in committee two to one last year. But this is - at this point this is a much larger fight than just Louisiana. This is a fight against the American problem of science denial and anti-science legislation. And whether we win or lose in Louisiana, we're going to keep fighting and as long as we're fighting - as long as we're changing the debate in America, that's what's important.

LICHTMAN: I wonder how your work in politics has changed your view of politics. Are you more or less hopeful that change is possible?

KOPPLIN: I don't think it's a thing - I don't think it's a question of hopeful for me. I think it has to happen, and so I'm going to do what it takes. And I don't consider whether or not it's possible or whether or not I'm hopeful about it. I'll fight until it changes.

LICHTMAN: Wow. That's dedication. You know, you mentioned that you were shy, and I read that in an article, and it's almost impossible to believe at this point. What...

KOPPLIN: When I was a junior in high school, I couldn't talk on the phone or even email strangers.

LICHTMAN: So what happened? How did that transformation occur?

KOPPLIN: It's hard to pick a specific moment where you - where there's this transformation. But sometime I - at some point in my senior year of high school, I realized I shouldn't be afraid or shy or ashamed of what I'm saying. This isn't like me going class - going school, or talking about school project. I know I'm right, we should be teaching science, and I have all the best scientists in the world backing me.

And so you know what, I can stand up and say, we should do the right thing. I found I could actually stand up and speak out and was comfortable with it, because I knew what was needed to be done. And at that - once I realized that, everything changed.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. And you're so - I mean, you're excellent at it. I wonder if it's weird now, now if you expect, to some degree, to be in the news.

KOPPLIN: At this point, yeah, like it's sort of funny. It's like for the shy kind from Louisiana three years ago, I would - it's - my life has become very different. It's become normalized to be talking about science all the time and talk, like, on the radio, debating creationists.


LICHTMAN: Yeah. That's a huge change. Let's go to the phones, to Diane(ph) in Charlottesville, Virginia. Welcome to the show.

DIANE: Hi. Thanks for having me. Zack, we were watching you the other night on Bill Maher. I have a 19-year-old, and we were very impressed, and you did a great job, by the way. And I wanted to mention that my daughter noticed that there - you didn't mention a link or someplace that she could go to find out where she could help with your, you know, cause, what it is you're doing. It's a great thing. Thank you.

KOPPLIN: So we have two websites up right now: Repeal Creationism, which is about creationism laws; creationistvouchers.com, which showcases the research we've done on school vouchers that are being used to fund creationism. And we're working on launching our campaign website for the second time in the week now. So that will be up in a few weeks' time, hopefully.

LICHTMAN: Thanks for calling, Diane.

DIANE: Welcome. Thank you.

KOPPLIN: Thank you.

DIANE: Bye-bye.

LICHTMAN: Zach, thank you so much for joining us on SCIENCE FRIDAY today, and good luck with all of your pursuits.

KOPPLIN: Thank you so much for having me on. This was great.

LICHTMAN: Zack Kopplin. You've probably seen him on Bill Maher, and he's a sophomore at Rice University in Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.