A national biological society has diverted its annual meeting to Salt Lake City, snubbing New Orleans because of Louisiana's recent embrace of a law widely panned as anti-science.
The Louisiana Science Education Act -- similar to a measure Utah lawmakers rejected three years ago -- allows local school boards to introduce creationist materials into the classroom under the guise of promoting "critical thinking" toward the theory of evolution, critics say.
"This law undermines the integrity of science and science education in Louisiana," wrote Richard Satterlie, president of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, in Feb. 5 letter to Gov. Bobby Jindal, who signed the controversial bill into law last June.
"Utah, in contrast, passed a resolution that states that evolution is central to any science curriculum," the letter continued. "As scientists it is our responsibility to oppose anti-science initiatives."
The 2011 event will bring up to 2,000 biologists to Salt Lake City for the first week of January. For Satterlie, it was a tough call to bail on New Orleans, which twice hosted the society before Hurricane Katrina's devastating 2005 visit.
"It has been a very popular venue. The people are nice and there's lots to do," said Satterlie, a neuroscientist at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. "It's a city in recovery. The city can use the business. And taking away a conference like ours from the state where the teachers and students could benefit really weighed heavily."
One of Salt Lake's selling points, besides its great snow, is Utah Board of Education policy, Satterlie said.
"Viewing present-day organisms as products of evolution provides the most productive framework for investigating and understanding their structure and function. As such, evolution is a unifying concept for science and provides the foundation for understanding nature," says the board's policy on teaching evolution.
Utah lawmakers have grappled with calls for creationist-inspired teachings in classrooms, but the 2006 Legislature settled the question in favor of science.
"It is great that it's not being held against us. People outside the state see we have gotten past this question," said University of Utah biologist Denise Dearing, a SICB member. "It's wrong to confuse faith with science. It's not a substitute."
Louisiana is now seeing the economic consequences of allowing those with a religious agenda to muddy science education, said pro-science activist Barbara Forrest.
"[SISB's] discipline has been attacked in this state. They made a decision like an industry that wants to relocate here and they can't get the support of the state," said Forrest, co-founder of the Louisiana Coalition for Science and co-author of Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design.