A New Science Problem—The Solution Is to March

Facts should speak for themselves, but the Trump administration has muted them. In the last 100 days, threats to climate science, to the ability of government scientists to present their data to the public, to funding for basic science about our environment and our health, have all converged.

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Credit: Dorothy Smith

“I’ve never seen an administration that was populated in the appointed positions by people who have made their careers tearing down the very agencies they now lead,” says Andrew Rosenberg, Director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “So many who have come from industry are carrying the industry line, misrepresenting science on climate change, public health, regulatory measures.”

The response was the March on Science this past weekend, in which hundreds of thousands gathered in Washington, DC, supported by sister marches in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Paris, Berlin, Hong Kong, Bogota, all told in over 600 cities around the world. The threat emanating from a government, and a country, long trusted to lead in basic science has spurred a unique mobilization of scientists.

The march came about hard work and grass roots organizing that eventually encompassed some 250 organizations. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, PhD, Co-Director of Partnerships for the march, describes the coalescence of climate scientists, entomologists, paleontologists, biologists, physicists, museums, aquariums, educators, citizen science groups, and activists, that supported the march. Together, she says, the groups encompass “the full spectrum of what science is doing and why it matters.”

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Credit: Dorothy Smith

The Washington, DC march was accompanied by a drippy sky, which soon turned into a steady rain, as though the planet were weeping. This did not deter the mass of people. Bobbing waves of umbrellas sheltered the crowd while bursts of funky music punctuated the air, a bittersweet festival.

Perhaps the march’s biggest star was an array of clever signs that, while amateurishly made, displayed the improvisation of the scientific mind pushed by unexpected circumstances. Several iterations of “I’m with Her” featured our mother, the Earth; “Science is not a liberal conspiracy” and “Ice has no agenda, it just melts,” were also prominent. Nerdy scientific puns were abundant, such as “May the ‘mass times acceleration’ be with you” and “If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the precipitate.” Other signs, such as “No Sides in Science,” pointed (in my mind at least) to a certain ambivalence, if not outrage, at the need to get out and march on what should be nonpartisan support for basic science.

On the main stage, speakers from an array of scientific disciplines, along with educators and advocates, pointed to the need for science education that reaches our children, arguing that science needs to emerge from its lofty realm and engage with the public. One entomologist pointed out how that “insects don’t see borders and they can cross walls,” that science is global. She asked why Americans should keep out immigrants on which research depends. A biologist discussed how her research on plankton had led to an unexpected breakthrough toward a cure for fungal diseases, a reminder of the value of basic research. A leader in environmental justice explained how 30 years ago African Americans began to march against pollution in their communities, reminding the crowd of the connection between science and policy and how that makes a real difference in people’s lives.

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Credit: Dorothy Smith

Although climate change is of central concern to environmentalists and was crucial to the march’s genesis, it is far from the only issue. We “wouldn’t see protection for endangered species if that data isn’t there,” says Johnson. Trump’s blunting of science will undermine our ability to safeguard “things like the quality of our drinking water if basic data isn’t there.”

The march is responding to “an overall set of attacks on public health and safety,” says Rosenberg, including climate science but much else. He points to huge cuts in the proposed Trump budget for the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and the National Institute of Health, among others. For Rosenberg, “regulatory rollback really means [the Trump administration] want to get rid of rules that cost industry, and do so in such a way as to ignore scientific concerns regarding public health and safety.”

Whether such a march politicizes science has been hotly debated. “I don’t think it’s unprecedented,” said Johnson about the intersection of politics and science. “Think of Copernicus or Galileo or water quality in Flint, Michigan. Who gets funded, all decisions are tied up in politics. So we’re encouraging scientists to become more active citizens.” Rosenberg adds that “separating the science you do day to day from politics is one thing. Separating science from public policy is a different thing.”

The March for Science is only one of an array of actions prompted by the excesses of the Trump administration, beginning with the Women’s March and continuing with the imminent People’s Climate March. “It’s all connected,” says Johnson. “Making sure women have opportunities in science is something I care about.” She points to social science studies on gender relations and pay disparities. “It’s important to have diversity of voices.” For her, a key objective is to “make sure we’re not limiting to an artificial definition of what science is or the types of people highlighted.”

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Credit: Dorothy Smith

The Washington, DC speakers did include many women and African Americans, belying the predominantly white, male status of the American scientific establishment. Social justice issues enter the fray. I wondered how much this would make the March for Science vulnerable to attacks from the right as being about issues other than science. Yet not to include a diverse group of speakers would itself be a kind of passive political acquiescence.

Despite questions about diversity issues and lingering ambivalence regarding the role of science in politics, the scientific community has largely united against threats from the Trump administration. They were marching for facts and data, for the scientific method, for evidence-based policy making, all of which feel under assault from an administration that began its existence by removing the words “climate change” from the Whitehouse website. “It is very important to show our broader society that a lot of people care about . . . science and the way science is viewed and used in public policy and daily life,” says Rosenberg. The scientists, and the people, are proclaiming the message so that “elected officials will hear this loud and clear.”