Scientists plan to march on Washington — but where will it get them?
A few months from now, thousands of scientists will leave their labs and take to the streets to rally on behalf of publicly funded, openly communicated, evidence-based research.
At least, that’s the vision of the organizers of the March for Science, which is slated to take place on April 22 — Earth Day.
Conceived in the wake of the successful Women’s March on Washington, and galvanized by recent news that President Trump’s administration was instructing government researchers not to communicate with the public, the plan includes a march in the District and dozens of satellite demonstrations. So far, marches are in the planning stages in more than 100 cities in at least 11 countries.
The event in Washington will culminate in a rally on the Mall featuring speakers and “teach-in” tents where scientists can share their research with the public. Organizers say that more than 40,000 people have signed up online to volunteer with the project.
It took less than two weeks for the march to balloon from a musing on Reddit into full-blown movement. A private Facebook group for participants has more than 800,000 members. Theoretical physicist Laurence Krauss said he plans to attend. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) took to Facebook to voice his approval. A handful of scientific societies, including the American Society for Cell Biology and the American Sociological Association, have endorsed it.
But the effort has also sparked debates about what a “March for Science” should mean — and whether scientists should be marching in the first place.
Rush Holt, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said he can’t think of any precedent for this kind of mass activism. In the past, scientists have spoken out about political interference in research, and they’ve been involved in protesting nuclear weapons and environmental contamination, “but those weren’t so much about science as they were referring to scientific issues,” he explained.
“As I understand it, the marchers want this to be a gigantic endorsement of the idea of science, the idea of verifiable evidence,” Holt said. “That’s new.”
Organizers say that the policies of the new administration — prohibitions on communication by government scientists, the executive order barring travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries, talk of removing climate change pages from the website of the Environmental Protection Agency — demand action.
“We feel that the time has passed for scientists to, in good conscience, stay out of this fight,” said Caroline Weinberg, a public health researcher and science writer who is co-organizing the march. “There is no need to be partisan — politicians on both sides of the aisle are guilty of positions that fly in the face of scientific evidence — but it is not possible to ignore policy when it affects not just your jobs but the future of your field.”
Already, several of the new president’s policies have jolted the scientific community. The American Geophysical Union is now urging members to sign petitions condemning the travel ban and urging legislators not to remove scientific data from government websites. More than 171 scientific, engineering and academic organizations signed a letter urging the president to rescind his executive order, noting that it will bar many students and researchers from traveling to the United States to do their work. The leading scientific societies have reached out to the Trump administration offering their expertise on science issues, including government action on climate change, but they have been largely rebuffed.
Given the current climate, “I’m pleased to see people spontaneously speaking out in defense of the scientific process, in defense of using good evidence in policymaking,” Holt said. He added that he has reached out to march organizers to see how his organization can help, but AAAS hasn’t formally gotten involved.
Holt did note that the choice to hold the march on Earth Day — when environmentalist groups are likely to be organizing their own demonstrations — could be a fraught one. The issue of environmental protection is so politically charged, it could overpower the march’s overall message about protecting evidence-based policymaking and scientific integrity.
Christine McEntee, the executive director of AGU, said that her group is still figuring what, if any, role they might have in the march. “At a minimum, we’ll make sure our members are aware of the March for Science if they’d like to attend,” she said. “We support scientists exercising their rights as citizens to speak out.”
Still, some researchers are skeptical that a march is the right way to advocate for their work — and worry that marching could actively harm it. In an opinion piece for the New York Times, coastal ecologist Robert Young wrote that the march would be perceived as a protest of President Trump and “trivialize and politicize the science we care so much about.”
“Trying to recreate the pointedly political Women’s March will serve only to reinforce the narrative from skeptical conservatives that scientists are an interest group and politicize their data, research and findings for their own ends,” he cautioned.
Instead of marching, Young urged his colleagues to make contact with civic groups, churches and elected officials in an effort to explain how science works and why scientific findings should be trusted. “We need storytellers, not marchers,” he said.
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical physicist at the University of Washington, countered that science has always been influenced by politics. She noted that she is only the 63rd black woman in American history to get a PhD in physics — a degree that has been awarded to tens of thousands of researchers. That’s no accident, she said.
“The universe may be doing things without any regard for human politics,” she said. “It probably is. … But there’s always an agenda that is shaping who can do research, how we think about the research that we’re doing, and the research we think is important to do.”
Prescod-Weinstein cited the example of Albert Einstein, who, in addition to illuminating the fundamental laws of physics, advocated for civil rights, socialism, and nuclear arms control. His politics made him a target of the FBI, which tracked his phone calls and went through his trash until his death in 1955
“Those are the same scientists we are taught to look up to as science students,” she said of Einstein and other physicists who advocated for arms control. “They very much understood that physics had a role to play in the unfolding of highly polarized political events.”
Indeed, Prescod-Weinstein and others say they believe that scientists haven’t been political enough. Along with astrophysicist Sarah Tuttle and cancer biologist Joseph Osmundson, she published a statement on the website the Establishment comparing the current situation to the climate in Germany in the early 1930s. “Professional standards and ambitions are not a substitute for morals, political or otherwise,” they wrote. “We cannot do business as usual anymore, regardless of how much we love our research or how important it feels.”
Much of the scientific community falls somewhere within these extremes. They are balancing anger about what they see as threats to their research, energy from the recent surge in activism, and worry about the perils of jumping into the political fray.
Mike Brown, the Caltech astronomer who famously “killed Pluto” with his discovery of dwarf planets in the outer solar system, said he still has misgivings. He’s not opposed to activism in general — Brown took his daughter to the Women’s March in Los Angeles in January and called it “one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done.” But he’s not sure marching is the best way for scientists to advocate for their work.
“Having a bunch of scientists marching takes the interesting thing about scientists away from them,” he said. “These are educators and teachers and scientists [whose] super power is teaching you cool things about the universe around you.” Maybe instead of marching, researchers should take Young’s advice and conduct a teach-in instead, he mused.
“I don’t know,” he said. “The attacks on science are pretty unprecedented, and maybe all these softer ideas are just crazy.”
Weinberg is familiar with these arguments, and she agreed that science shouldn’t be influenced by politics. But, she said, scientists have an obligation to make sure that their work informs policy.
“That’s what research is for: to help us understand the world and to guide our decisions going forward,” she said. “It’s absurd to ignore the vast pool of knowledge centuries of scientific research have placed at our fingertips.”