March for Science: Can political activism and science coexist?


Jenny Tam spent much of her life avoiding politics. She grew up in a small town in Arkansas, as the child of Chinese immigrants who had seen the dangers of political backlash, and she always tried to stay nonpolitical.

All that changed for Dr. Tam, now an immunologist and biophysicist at Massachusetts General Hospital, as she watched the current administration dismiss facts and saw a lack of understanding of how rigorous peer-reviewed studies really are. Suddenly, she felt the need to march into the fray, helping to found the group FACTS (Fostering Advocacy and Collaboration Through Science).

Tam isn’t alone among scientists who feel compelled to step out of the lab or the field to stand up for science. On Saturday, which is also Earth Day, these newly minted activists and other science supporters plan to gather in Washington, D.C., and in more than 500 other cities for a March for Science.

The foray into activism and politics is a tough one for some scientists. And although the organizers have taken pains to note the march is nonpartisan, concern that the focus will become political has sparked some controversy and debate among scientists.

Many supporters of the march note that science is already political, and that ignoring its importance to policy is disingenuous. The march is needed, they say, due to the increased attacks on science, threats to slash funding for research, and lack of understanding of what scientists do.

But critics worry that despite all the declarations that the march is “non-partisan,” it will be viewed by many Americans as anti-Trump and anti-Republican, and that it will only increase the partisan divide and cement the impression in some people’s minds that scientists are driven by ideology rather than evidence.

“I worry there will be people there carrying signs that have incendiary messages, and it’s that one percent that will become the meme for the conservative blogosphere,” says Robert Young, a coastal geologist at Western Carolina University. He cringes imagining rural America’s reaction to, say, a sign saying “Make America smart again.”

Dr. Young has seen first-hand the ways politicians can try to delegitimize science when he helped author a report on sea-level rise that had data that developers didn’t want to hear and state legislators dismissed. And back in his 20s, he says, he might have joined Saturday’s march himself.

But Young says he’s also become more pragmatic with experience, and he worries that a march – one that he says will certainly be viewed as partisan by much of America – will only solidify barriers. “If you want to make a difference and you want to live within the political realities we live in right now, then calling these people out and embarrassing them is not going to help us win,” Young says.

Other scientists say they hear that argument and acknowledge there is a risk but suggest that there is a much greater risk to not doing anything.

“It’s absurd to think of science as being apolitical,” says Alan Townsend, an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “It doesn’t mean it should be partisan, but it’s embroiled in the world of politics as well, and we have to engage.” Certain groups may use the march to attack scientists, he acknowledges, but says there’s nothing new in that narrative. “And the upside potential is more meaningful and needed.”

The backing for the science march has been widespread, including behemoths like the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest scientific society, as well as dozens of research groups, museums, small scientific organizations, and nonprofits.

A huge piece of the march is simply making both science and scientists more accessible and visible to the public. Most marches have planned education stations; in Washington, nearly two dozen “teach-ins” are being offered, on topics ranging from food solutions and creek critters to carbon innovation and the physics of superheroes.

“We’ll have booths set up by a variety of organizations to talk about the science they’re doing, so that the public begins to get a more expansive view of what science is,” says Scott Franklin, a physicist at the Rochester Institute of Technology and one of the organizers of the march in Rochester, N.Y. “The more visible scientists are in the community the more normalized we get.”

Some participants also say that, while the march may have been catalyzed in part by the Trump administration – with its proposed cuts for research funding, its loose use of “facts,” and the nomination of some climate-change critics to prominent roles – the antagonism toward science among some policymakers in particular, has been building for several decades, and has reached a point where scientists need to push back, whatever the risks.

Climate change is just one example. Once it became associated with Al Gore around the 2000 election, some Republicans who had previously proposed climate action solidified in opposition and started denying the reality of climate change, says John Holdren, a senior adviser to former President Obama on science and technology. Partisan opposition to Mr. Obama, who supported action on climate change, just intensified the divide.

Is there a risk that the march will further alienate people? Of course, says Dr. Holdren. “The very notion of marching will aggravate some people. But you know it is pretty well-established reality that nothing one does in the domain of political action pleases everybody…. My own view is that the potential benefits do outweigh the downsides.”

The March for Science grew out of the momentum of the Women’s March in January and has faced similar criticisms and internal turmoil about inclusion of diverse peoples and perspectives.

Public critics have also suggested that the inclusion of certain advocacy groups, which they say ignore science on issues like GMOs, could make the march problematic. Those critics note that antagonism toward science is not partisan – just as climate-change denial is associated with the right, some on the left are leading the charge to dismiss science around GMOs or vaccines.

“Science is not a buffet where people can pick and choose the parts that they like and disregard the rest,” wrote Alma Laney, a plant virologist and blogger, in a blog post about why he was not marching. “Climate change denial, young earth creationism, anti-vaccine and anti-genetic engineering arguments are not equal to the science on those topics. It’s incredibly sad to see a group that purports to be standing up for all science to willingly partner with groups that are antiscience or hold antiscience positions.”

Still, for all the criticism and disagreements, most observers have noted just how broad the support for the science march has been, including many people and groups who disagree politically, but feel deeply that a strong commitment to high-quality science and research is necessary.

Many supporters of the march see it as an opportunity to shed positive light on science. As Tam, the immunology researcher, says, the march “should be a celebration of the science our country has really excelled at.”

And, rather than marching for one concrete goal – increased NIH funding, say, or a broader acceptance of climate change – many of the organizers and participants express hope that the march could help demystify the scientific process for some Americans, and also encourage more scientists to be engaged in the public sphere, whether through serving on local town councils or committees, reaching out to lawmakers, or simply talking to people in their community about what they do.

Michael Eisen, a computational biologist at the University of California in Berkley who recently announced his Senate candidacy, will be speaking at the march in San Francisco because “it’s about standing up for a worldview and a way of approaching problems.”

“Too often we think of it as this kind of priesthood, with scientists who work in labs and produce science. But really, I think most people are basically scientists in the way they live,” and the way they apply the scientific method in their daily lives, he says. Eisen hopes the march will help connect scientists and the public and to express that science truly is for everyone.

Holdren, Obama’s science advisor, sees the march as something of an experiment.

“We are trying something new compared to the historical approach of writing sober op-editorial pieces, and giving talks to rotary clubs, and folks at universities talking to each other, the national academies of science, and engineering, and medicine, holding their meetings and issuing their press releases,” he says. “The more we get people talking about society’s interest in science and technology, the better. If the March advances that conversation and persuades more people to engage in that conversation in more different ways, then it will have been a success.”

• Eva Botkin-Kowacki contributed to his report.

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