Scientists and science advocates are expected to fill the streets of more than 500 cities around the world Saturday in support of scientific research, which they feel has increasingly come under attack, especially during the Trump administration.
Since its inception in late January, the March for Science has transformed from a grass-roots social media campaign into a bona fide force of scientific advocacy, attracting support from more than 220 official science organizations. But the marchers and the activists who organized them will soon have to address what follows the demonstrations. In addition to channeling the energy they’ve built, they will also need to contend with tensions that have emerged within the scientific community over this political turn.
Most eyes will be on Washington, where the main march will occur. ... A march is also planned for Bellingham.
“We have no intention of letting this stop after April 22,” said Dr. Caroline Weinberg, a public health researcher and co-chairwoman of the march. “I will have considered it pretty much a failure if after April 22 all of this movement and all of this passion dissipates.”
Most eyes will be on Washington, where the main march will occur. But there will also be rallies in medical hubs like Boston, technology centers like San Francisco and even in the heart of oil and gas country, Oklahoma City. A march is also planned for Bellingham. The strength of these satellite events could be important indicators of where the activism generated by the march will head in the future.
On Earth Day
For the past three months Weinberg and volunteers from across the country have been coordinating the protest, which will take place on Earth Day at the National Mall. The group partnered with the Earth Day Network because it had large scale event planning experience as well as a permit for the Mall on Earth Day.
The day will begin with teach-in sessions, followed by a four-hour rally featuring Bill Nye the Science Guy; Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who helped expose lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan; and Lydia Villa-Komaroff, who helped produce insulin from bacteria, among others, before culminating with the march.
The idea that scientists are leading the march started to evaporate when these small towns started to show up. I started to see teachers, farmers and factory workers; nonscientists are leading these marches, and that’s uplifting.
Kishore Hari, who does outreach for the University of California, San Francisco
For Weinberg, the idea to march began in late January when she heard that the Trump administration had ordered federal agencies to temporarily halt external communications that inform the public. She found a group of scientists on Twitter who shared her concerns.
Their march, with the rallying cry of “Science, not Silence,” was inspired by the Women’s March on Washington.
Kishore Hari, who does outreach for the University of California, San Francisco, has worked as a liaison between the national group and its satellite marches. As more events were organized around the United States, he said the conventional narrative about the marches changed.
“The idea that scientists are leading the march started to evaporate when these small towns started to show up,” he said. “I started to see teachers, farmers and factory workers; nonscientists are leading these marches, and that’s uplifting.”
After establishing their website and crafting their mission statements, the scientists quickly found themselves under the microscope. Across social media, people were picking apart every word of the organization’s public message.
One of the earliest critiques came from Steven Pinker, a renowned psychology professor at Harvard, who criticized the March’s diversity statement.
“They make the March seem like an extension of the identity politics and victimology that have discredited academia in the eyes of much of the rest of the world,” he said in a recent interview.
As march organizers note, science has always been political, from the imprisonment of Galileo to the creation of the atomic bomb and beyond.
In response, the organizers changed the document’s language (the statement has been updated several times). But that upset other scientists who felt the organization was reproducing the status quo in science, in which women and minorities have been historically marginalized.
The diversity concerns have also been joined with worries among some scientists — especially those participating in science advocacy for the first time — that they will lose credibility with the public by taking part in the march.
As march organizers note, science has always been political, from the imprisonment of Galileo to the creation of the atomic bomb and beyond. But the polarization over some scientific issues in the United States became supercharged in the late 1980s and early 1990s as global environmental problems like the depleting ozone layer and climate change were increasingly being addressed by national policies. As the Soviet Union collapsed, conservative media began focusing more on environmental issues.
“You start seeing headlines that say environmentalists are the new Marxists,” said Aaron M. McCright, a sociologist at Michigan State University, who has studied the politicalization of science.
I see the Science March as a coming-out party for scientists who have always been careful about getting involved in political advocacy and activism.
Lucky Tran, a molecular biologist and a member of the march’s steering committee
Protests like the March for Science can lead to political changes, according to Stan A. Veuger, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. But he said that depends on “big turnouts and constant follow through.”
By observing the effects of the Tea Party’s Tax Day protest in 2009, Veuger and his colleagues found that locations where demonstrations were well attended were more likely to see high voter turnout for Republicans in the 2010 midterm elections. But a key factor, he said, was the continued efforts by the Tea Party activists to volunteer in their neighborhoods for their cause.
That may hold a lesson for the march’s organizers, of which they’re aware.
“I see the Science March as a coming-out party for scientists who have always been careful about getting involved in political advocacy and activism,” said Lucky Tran, a molecular biologist who works as a science communicator at Columbia University, and a member of the march’s steering committee. “I don’t think we should see this as a one-off event.”
Bellingham Science Week culminates with the Bellingham March for Science, an official satellite of the March for Science in Washington, D.C. The mile-long march will begin at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Bellingham City Hall. Directly following the march will be a Community Science Fair on Lottie Street from 2-4 p.m. Details about Science Week, the March for Science, and the Community Science Fair are on online at sciencemarchbellingham.com.