Scientists are organizing a march on Washington for Earth Day, April 22, to protest an “alarming trend” of discrediting scientific consensus and hampering scientific discovery.
Thought up in the aftermath of the Women’s March on Washington, the March for Science has been described as a nonpartisan “celebration of science” that opposes anti-science agendas on both sides of the aisle. It’s a call for protecting and supporting the scientific community, as well as fighting the mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue. Organizers say scientists and their supporters can no longer afford to stay silent while scientific inquiry is denigrated and sidelined.
The march through the streets of Washington will culminate in a rally on the National Mall with speakers addressing the affect of science on everyday life. Satellite marches are also being planned. The five stated goals for the march are to humanize science, stand up for scientists, advocate for open inclusive and accessible science, form partnerships with the public and affirm science as a central part of a functioning democracy.
Erika Shugart, the executive director of the American Society for Cell Biology, which has endorsed the march, said that insufficient funding of scientific research, which has not kept up with inflation in recent years, and the “interesting dialogue” around facts has been troubling to many scientists.
“It’s about supporting publicly funded science and evidence-based decision making, which we think is critically important for our society,” she told Yahoo News.
Shugart said a lot of the science in the United States is publicly funded and provides many of the technologies and medicines people use in their daily lives.
“Science and scientific discovery are really the bedrock of so much of what we do. It’s vitally important that we continue because it’s not just about a special interest group of science,” she continued. “It’s really about making sure our education is good, our economy is good and that we’re really driving forward by being explorers and understanding the world.”
The idea of a science march gained ground on a Reddit post about the Trump administration scrubbing the White House website of references to climate change. It quickly spread across social media, and now the March for Science Facebook page has hundreds of thousands of followers.
“I’ve been involved in science for decades, and to see the excitement that’s been generated by this march, not just by scientists but by the public, by the science supporters — you don’t get 800,000 people on a Facebook group just using scientists,” Shugart said. “It’s a much wider group. To see that kind of positive support for science — given that I’ve given my whole life to science — is one of the most exciting things that I’ve seen in my career.”
Many scientists are concerned about the Trump administration’s tenuous relationship with facts, reluctance to acknowledge the reality of man-made climate change and attacks on environmental regulations — among other issues.
Tiffany Lohwater, the interim chief communications officer for the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, told Yahoo News that her organization is closely monitoring the ongoing developments surrounding the march.
“It is exciting to see people enthusiastic about science and the use of evidence in policymaking, and we are inspired by the grassroots nature of this movement,” Lohwater said via email. “We have been in contact with the co-chairs of the effort and are learning more about their plans for the event as they develop.”
The march’s organizers say the best way to ensure that scientific evidence will guide policy decisions on important issues is to foster an appreciation and understanding of science among the public. In other words, the value of science needs to be taken from the classrooms, peer-reviewed journals and laboratories and effectively communicated to the Americans outside this community.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a nonprofit science advocacy group, has been outspoken in its criticism of Trump. Late last year, the organization organized an open letter signed by more than 2,300 scientists urging Trump to respect scientific inquiry. UCS has stayed vigilant and is helping to organize the People’s Climate March the following weekend, on April 29.
Andrew Rosenberg, the director of the UCS center for science and democracy, said it’s important for scientists to be politically engaged and that the march is just one forum in which to do this. He said the energy behind it shows that the organizers are touching a nerve with many people.
“We support it because scientists should speak out. When you get your PhD, it’s not like you check your citizenship at the door,” Rosenberg said in an interview with Yahoo News.
He said ideological or financial interests have launched concerted efforts to discredit scientists when they consider their findings inconvenient or unhelpful. He said that people who foment a distrust of science are doing exactly what they are accusing scientists themselves of doing: politicizing science.
“It’s just nonsensical. That’s a time-honored strategy. You accuse your ostensible opponent of doing what you’re doing. It’s a distraction method. It’s easy to trace it back to the tobacco industry. But now it’s become more a part of a public dialogue,” Rosenberg said. “Unfortunately this election has made it even more so with the discussion around facts and fact-checking and post-truth and all of those sorts of things. That hits scientists very hard. Science is about trying to figure out how the world works.”
Politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have waded into the discussion by expressing their support.
“Science is not Democratic or Republican, progressive or conservative,” Sanders wrote on Facebook. “Science is science. There are no ‘alternative facts.’ A modern society cannot survive unless decisions are made on evidence-based research. Congratulations to those scientists and researchers who are fighting back.”
But some in the scientific community are concerned that despite Sanders’ caveats, the march will be viewed as a political statement, specifically a liberal one.
Robert S. Young, a professor of coastal geology at Western Carolina University, for instance, penned an op-ed for the New York Times arguing that it is “a terrible idea” because it will reinforce the narrative among some conservatives that “scientists are an interest group and politicize their data, research and findings for their own ends.”
He said he runs a center with a mission of conducting scientific research and relaying the findings to elected officials, regulators and the public. There is no question, he continued, that the march would increase polarization and make his job more difficult.
“A march by scientists, while well intentioned, will serve only to trivialize and politicize the science we care so much about, turn scientists into another group caught up in the culture wars and further drive the wedge between scientists and a certain segment of the American electorate.”
But for plenty of scientists, the time to speak out against anti-science policies is long overdue.
“The back and forth about ‘scientists shouldn’t be activists’ I think is just really off the mark,” Rosenberg said. “Like I said, you don’t check your citizenship at the door.”
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