March for Science: for a good cause, but will it do good?

Critics fear global event risks ‘trivialising and politicising’ research

April 4, 2017
March for Science
Source: Getty
Science at stake: an event originally designed to unite researchers with a common voice for the good of science has ended up splintering the research community

“On 22 April, 2017, we walk out of the lab and onto the streets.” As rallying cries go, it’s a pretty good one: a call to arms for scientists everywhere to collectively hang up their lab coats and make their voices heard.

According to organisers, the March for Science, planned for Washington DC and more than 400 cities around the world, will enable researchers to demonstrate their passion for science and speak out against the anti-science sentiment that has recently taken root in the White House under Donald Trump.

There is a lot to protest against. Last month, the US president published his proposed budget, which suggested huge cuts to the agencies responsible for health and environmental research. Many are worried that the country’s stellar science reputation is at stake.

Mr Trump's attitude to scientific evidence has also been called into question. He has previously linked vaccines to autism and recently installed Scott Pruitt, who has dismissed evidence that carbon dioxide emissions is the primary cause of global warming, at the top of the Environmental Protection Agency.

So, to many researchers, the plan for a march seems sound. However, others doubt the merits of the demonstration and it seems that an event originally designed to unite researchers with a common voice for the good of science has ended up splintering the community.

This hasn't been helped by tales of bitter infighting among the march’s organising committee, very public Twitter spats about failings of the campaign on diversity, and widespread criticisms of its aims.

Robert Young, professor of coastal geology at Western Carolina University, summed up the concerns of the march's critics when he wrote in the New York Times that marching for science “will serve only to reinforce the narrative from sceptical conservatives that scientists are an interest group and politicise their data, research and findings for their own ends”.

He argues that even a well-intentioned march by scientists will “trivialise and politicise” science, pull scientists into the culture wars and “further drive the wedge” between scientists and some of the American electorate.

“We need storytellers, not marchers,” he says, adding that scientists could better concentrate their efforts by meeting people who do not know any scientists. “Put a face on the debate...The solution here is not mass spectacle,” he says.

Whether Professor Young likes it or not, the March for Science is set to be a mass spectacle. It takes its inspiration from the Women’s Marches, which saw 5 million protest worldwide the day after Mr Trump’s inauguration.

That same day, a Twitter account started exploring the idea of a science advocacy march in Washington and within 24 hours it had gained more than 100,000 followers. More than 470,000 people have now liked the March for Science Facebook page and the overseas marches mean that this will be a truly global event.

Five of the marches will be in the UK. Jon Williams, a former marine biologist turned entrepreneur, saw what was happening on social media around the US march. “I immediately felt that that was something we needed to emulate in Britain because science is grossly underfunded, threatened by issues like Brexit and not properly considered by policymakers,” he told Times Higher Education.

He runs the @ScienceMarchUK Twitter account, which is helping to support the UK marches. Although he concedes that the UK has fewer anti-science politicians than the US, he believes that there is still a long way to go, as only 26 of 650 MPs have degrees in science subjects.

“It is our job as scientists, students and allies to educate and inform politicians and law makers of what science has shown to be true and to call out pseudoscience and false rhetoric, which is damaging to people and the environment,” he said.

Back in the USA, Sylvester James Gates, John S. Toll professor of physics at the University of Maryland and previously a member of Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, will not be marching come 22 April.

He recently told reporters at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that representing science as a political faction or interest group is dangerous and that a politically charged event might make scientists appear driven by ideology rather than evidence.

Caroline Weinberg, co-chair of March for Science, conceded that the march is inevitably about politics. But the march is “explicitly non-partisan” and does not “support or condemn politicians or actions based on their political party”, she told THE.

“It's about how science informs policy, how it serves and sometimes fails communities, how some politicians choose to reject scientific evidence in favour of their personal bias,” she added. “We take firm sides on issues based on the available scientific evidence but focusing on specific politicians lets too many people off the hook.”

Brett Younginger, a PhD candidate at Portland State University, plans to attend the march in Portland. Although he does think there is a danger the event could make scientists appear as a special interest group, to him the alternative of remaining silent “is not an option”.

“The future of research and innovation in our country is at stake,” he said. “It would be nice for scientists to remain focused on their research while not worrying about the political implications of science funding. This is not a reality."

People involved in research “need to stand together in protest” against politicians who “have a financial incentive to censor evidence”, he added.

Meanwhile, Naoko Tanese, professor of microbiology at New York University School of Medicine, is not sure whether the marches will make much difference. She said Mr Trump and his allies “are not remotely interested in having their minds changed”.

Professor Tanese added: “Nobody minds pitting scientists against Trump, that’s already a given.”

holly.else@timeshighereducation.com

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