Marching for Science Internationally

Events advocating for science and research are scheduled around the world Saturday.

April 21, 2017

Evan Savage, one of the organizers of Saturday’s March for Science in Toronto, looks at what’s happening south of the border in the U.S. and is reminded of what Canadian scientists faced under the previous Stephen Harper government, specifically cuts to science funding and the alleged muzzling of government scientists.

“We’ve seen this playbook before,” Savage said, “this playbook of, let’s go after the people who work on the environment, who work on climate, who work on science in general. Let’s cut their funding; let’s tell them they can’t speak. And we have also seen that it can work to raise our voices as scientists, to stand up and say, ‘This is not OK.’”

The main March for Science is happening tomorrow in Washington, D.C., but the march in Toronto is one of more than 100 satellite marches happening outside the U.S. -- and one of 18 officially affiliated events in Canada alone. “We share many of the concerns of the other marches worldwide,” said Savage. “We want to speak out against the muzzling of government scientists, we want to advocate for evidence-based policy making, we want to see better and more inclusive STEM education. We also want to send a message that science is not and must not be mischaracterized as partisan.”

March for Science events are happening all over the world this weekend, from Greenland to Germany, South Korea to South Africa. Some of the marches are being organized by American academics based overseas, while others are homegrown. Some are expected to be large gatherings of a thousand or more people, while others will likely be no more than a few dozen participants strong.

The Main March on Science
A preview of tomorrow's event
in Washington, D.C. Read more.

Although the organizers of the main march in Washington have stressed that the event is nonpartisan, the context of the Trump presidency -- including his proposed cuts to research funding and the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency and his actions to undo Obama-era regulations combating climate change -- will no doubt loom large in D.C. The marches abroad are taking on their own local flavors, but the American political context is very much a part of the overall global picture.

"The lines between national and global science are blurred, and increasingly so," said Savage. "A lot of fields depend on international collaborations; a lot of fields depend crucially on data sets that are held within national jurisdictions.”

In Malawi, Terrie Taylor, a professor at Michigan State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine who spends six months of every year in the country, said the Trump administration’s proposals to cut the National Institutes of Health budget by nearly 20 percent and to eliminate the NIH’s global health-focused Fogarty International Center have galvanized support for Saturday’s satellite event in Blantyre, which she hopes will attract up to a couple hundred people.

“We have a lot of NIH-funded work here, and we have a lot of people who have benefited from Fogarty International Center programs,” Taylor said. “The thrust is not anti-Trump as much as it is support for U.S. federally funded research and the U.S. federally funded training, which has had a huge impact on so many people here. So many people have benefited from taking part in the Fogarty programs.”

In Brazil, scientists are dealing with deep cuts to their own federal science budget, which has just been slashed by 44 percent. Ricardo Maia, one of the organizers of the satellite march in São Paulo, said via email that the march has two main goals: “(1) to close the gap between scientific knowledge and the general public and (2) ask for more investments in the part of the government and states in science, as well as facilitating the process to make the private industry increase its investment.”

“To reach the first goal we're inviting groups and people that work with public awareness of science to prepare expositions and workshops to be presented in the day of the march. For example, we plan on having an explanation on how to date rocks, a workshop in cloud identification and an exposition with preserved animals in jars and bone pieces of human ancestors to talk about human evolution,” said Maia, a master’s student in the Institute of Biomedical Sciences at the University of São Paulo. “The second goal we're trying to reach partly via the invited speakers.”

In London, Saturday’s march will take place in the context of Britain’s negotiations to exit the European Union. Story Sylwester, one of the coordinators of the march, said there are concerns about how Brexit might affect international and E.U. researchers working in the United Kingdom, as well as how it could affect students studying there through E.U. programs like Erasmus. “Right now the research community here is vibrant and world leading, and people are very concerned that even if funding stays that researchers might not,” said Sylwester, a master’s student in paleopathology at Durham University originally from Portland, Ore.

Sylwester said organizers are expecting up to 10,000 people for the London march, which will start at the city’s Science Museum and end with speakers and a rally at Parliament Square. “The main part of our march is to get people excited about science,” she said. “It’s not necessarily a protest march. We want to keep it positive. The theme is positivity and celebration.”

One of the organizers of the March for Science in Cape Town, Julie Kohn, likewise said the idea “Is just to be completely positive, for it to be a celebration of science.” The first 200 attendees of the march, the only one in South Africa, will receive free admission to the Cape Town Science Center.

“I do think it’ll be a little different from the U.S.,” said Kohn, a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering at Cornell University and a visiting researcher at the University of Cape Town. “I don’t anticipate anti-Trump signs that I assume will be in the U.S. -- I hope not, at least. It’s going to have a little different flavor because of the recent history of protests in this country. We want to keep it more of a positive march than a protest.”

In South Korea, Seunghwan Kim, a professor of physics at POSTECH, expects about 1,000 people to be in attendance at the march he's helping to organize in central Seoul, which he said has been gaining momentum and media attention throughout the week. "Scientists here want to put science in the right place, to state the importance of science to the Korean public and also the government," he said.

In Australia, where there will be about 10 different marches throughout the country, organizers have stated a series of aims, including universal science literacy (the March for Science Australia calls for "world-class science education and teaching of critical thinking skills in Australian schools"), open communication of science and public availability of all publicly funded research, evidence-based policy making, and stable investment in scientific research by the Australian government.

"Like in the States, I think there's a general kind of disapproval or weariness about what passes for political discourse here in Australia," said Jocelyn Prasad, one of the organizers. "There has been a disregard for evidence-based research, particularly in the area of climate change."

"Also, I just think that the way science is communicated here has got people a little worried. With more and more people getting information from the likes of Facebook, there is greater scope for misinformation to spread, and we've seen that happen with the anti-vaccination movement here in Australia. They have gained strength," said Prasad. She added that whooping cough -- for which there has long been a preventative vaccine -- had shown up in her son's school.

Similarly, the mission statement of the March for Science in Berlin says that the event "aims to raise awareness of the significance of scientific findings and verifiable results for our society …. Currently, the basis of our modern way of life is now endangered through populist demands and the dissemination of 'fake news.'"

"Every European country has a populist movement which is gaining traction in one way or another," said Eve Craigie, one of the Berlin march organizers. "We have one in Germany which is still rather mild in their popularity compared to maybe France and Holland, but they are also very anti-academia, anti-science, and I think we are concerned that if they gain even more traction that we could experience the same things that are happening in the U.S."

Craigie, a medical doctor, mentioned as other specific topics of concern the threat to Central European University in Hungary, where the right-wing, populist government has passed legislation that the university says would make it impossible to continue operating in the country, and the crackdown on universities in Turkey, where thousands of academics been fired from their jobs and some jailed since a failed coup attempt last July. There is no march scheduled in Turkey. The March for Science shared the following post on its Twitter account last week about the pressures on Turkish scientists.

In Greenland, ground zero for global warming, the March for Science will begin in the town of Kangerlussuaq -- the site of an airport and a staging area for many international research projects -- and end at the edge of an ice sheet, where demonstrators will take a picture. "It's going to be a very small march," said the main organizer, Mike MacFerrin, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies ice-sheet behavior related to melt, refreezing and runoff. "We're not going to have 10,000-person march in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. We'll have anywhere between one dozen to a few dozen people, and that's fine."

Greenland, after all, has a population of fewer than 60,000 people. But it has "a very outsize importance on the world stage," MacFerrin said.

"Doing science in Greenland has an outsize impact not just on Greenland but on the world," he said. "It is one of the most rapidly changing places on the planet. It's warming far faster than most of the rest of the world."

"It's really important for Miami and New Orleans and countries and cities around the world along the coast to know what's going to happen in Greenland over the next hundred years," he said. Referring to sea level rise, he added, "If they don't think it's important, they're going to find out why."


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