Marching for Science

Effort gains backers and appears to build momentum, but some scientists worry that political fallout may not be what organizers want.

March 8, 2017
 
Scientists rally in Boston.

John Nemeth, executive director of scientific research society Sigma Xi, was a doctoral student at North Carolina State University when the original Earth Day was organized in 1970. The demonstrations across hundreds of U.S. cities were a "general uprising" to protect the country's natural resources, he said.

But Nemeth rejects comparisons between this year's march and the original Earth Day celebrations, despite the shared April 22 date.

"They're two different ideas," he said. "Earth Day is primarily a pro-environment operation. This is science in every possible aspect that you can think of -- A to Z."

The announcement late last month that Sigma Xi and, more significantly, the American Association for the Advancement of Science will become partners of the march signaled that the event has built mainstream cachet -- even as some academic scientists have raised concerns about the wisdom of a demonstration to advance the cause of science. Sigma Xi boasts more than 110,000 members and AAAS counts about 100,000 scientists among its ranks. Their involvement could be comforting to leaders of some higher ed institution who worry that the march, which began as an online discussion among first-time organizers, could become overly politicized. To many administrators, the top goal now is establishing good relationships with whomever President Trump picks to lead science agencies -- and some fear a large rally would suggest that scientists are allied against the administration.

The idea for the March for Science began in late January as an online discussion that quickly gathered momentum through social media. The event aims, among other broad goals, to promote evidence-based science in public policy and to connect researchers to the public. Scientists in Boston have already held a rally for similar principles, and more such events are planned.

Rush Holt, the president and CEO of AAAS, said scientists have an obligation to communicate their work to the public.

"That's part of science, the process of science … communication," Holt said. "What we see right now is a remarkable opportunity that I don't think we've seen in a long, long time to communicate with the public about the value of science."

It's not hard to see how the new administration could prompt those concerned about the role of science in society to take to the streets: during the campaign Trump called global warming a "hoax" perpetrated by the Chinese government; he has met with well-known skeptics of vaccination; and recent reports indicate the White House plans drastic cuts for federal agencies conducting environmental research like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The current political environment would appear to add to the urgency for science advocates to communicate the value of research.

But Holt said it's a priority for the organization to avoid any appearance of partisanship.

"Partisanship injects bias into the science process," he said. "And part of the reason we're demonstrating is to keep the process of science healthy. We don't do that by compromising the very principles that are necessary for good science."

The organizations also have larger aims for science communication that go beyond a march on a single day. Holt said that could take the form of teach-ins, speeches, museum open houses or other advocacy on the local level. The idea is that the march will be a jumping-off point for people involved or interested in science to play a more active role in sharing its value on the local level. It's unclear what specific form those activities will take as organizers continue planning for the march in April, but the partner organizations say it is essential to the success of the march.

"That sustainable momentum will happen there. It won't happen in D.C.," Nemeth said.

Academics who have taken issue with the idea of a march said they hoped to see its organizers follow through on those promises -- both to keep the focus on science and to continue communicating about it after that weekend.

A University of Chicago biologist, Jerry Coyne, an outspoken skeptic of the march despite his personal liberal politics, said he was somewhat heartened by the endorsement of AAAS. Coyne was even more encouraged to read this week that there would be an educational component to the march, including a teach-in at the National Mall, where researchers will speak to the public about their work. He continues to be concerned that the demonstration could be politicized. Scientists should avoid that, Coyne said, by advocating for scientific facts while refraining from endorsing specific policy solutions.

"Scientists can lose credibility if they prescribe certain solutions for problems," he said.

Rob Young, a coastal geologist at Western Carolina University, said he was skeptical that the message of a march would reach the Americans with whom scientists most need to communicate. And he said planning the event to coincide with Earth Day would play into the hands of media that would seek to obfuscate the goals of the march and identify it with a liberal, environmental agenda.

"My charge would be to everybody who attends the march: go march and develop a lot of energy and excitement around the idea that science matters, and then go home and act on that energy," Young said.

Many advocates involved with the event see no reason to become overcautious because others might distort a pro-science message. Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a former dean at the University of New Hampshire, said a demonstration of popular support for science should be seen as a positive for higher ed administrators advocating to the federal government.

"Telling Congress we care about these issues is important," Rosenberg said. "This is an opportunity to say a lot of people care about the role of science in society, and you can send a good signal to your constituents by continuing to support science programs."

(Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the number of Sigma Xi members. The story has been updated.)

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