Since its inception, the March for Science has been contentious, drawing as much vocal criticism as praise. Scientists getting politically involved? What are they protesting? What do they hope to accomplish? I’ve found this debate to be very encouraging, and I believe that the debate (and actions) that precede and follow the March will be as important as the March itself. Here, I’d like to share some of my own thoughts:
The March for Science is not about science, per se.
The March is less about taking a stand against an attack on scientific study and use of the scientific method, and more a response to our government’s increasing disavowal of evidence-based policy making. While the American public largely retains its faith in science, and believes in the ability of science to improve lives, there is a growing gap between what scientists believe and what the public believes (and what politicians legislate).
Science is inherently political, but doesn’t have to be partisan.
Science necessarily shapes public policy. Scientific research has provided us with an understanding of disease, as well as methods to combat and prevent disease (indoor smoking bans, public school vaccine requirements, bans on use of certain chemicals in food, etc.). Science allows us to predict and prepare for natural disasters to minimize human casualties (storm warnings and responses, allocating money to build damns/reservoirs for droughts, etc.). Scientific findings better allow policy makers to craft legislation for the greater good.
Accordingly, much of science is publicly funded, and in our current political climate that funding is at risk. The National Institute of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Energy (DOE), and even the Department of Defense (DOD) are all government agencies that use taxpayer money to finance scientific research. Research funded by the private sector is often limited to what is financially profitable, which can sometimes exclude many important areas of research including basic science research, antibiotic development, and research on rare diseases. Government-funded research has led to numerous breakthroughs that are now ubiquitous in our lives, including the internet, fiber optics, and bar codes. Taxpayers deserve to know where their money is going, and how their investment has paid off.
I’ve heard the criticism that the March will reinforce the view of science as partisan, with scientists as part of the urban intellectual elite in opposition to Trump and those who elected him. However, it is useful to remember that support for science funding and evidence-based policy making has historically been bipartisan. Cancer does not discriminate between Democrats and Republicans. Severe weather hits urban California and the rural south alike. And those who reject science are present in both political parties as well. While the right is known for denying climate change, the left harbors an aversion to GMO crops.
This fight is bigger than our individual squabbles and differences as scientists.
The label of “scientist” encompasses an enormous and heterogeneous group. We represent diversity in race, gender, and sexual orientation (and continue to work to improve our diversity in these areas). We come from different backgrounds with different training, hold differing opinions on the role of science in society, and may even interpret the same data differently. This diversity and heterogeneity is crucial to the advancement of science in which scientists must constantly challenge what is accepted as “truth,” replacing old hypotheses with newer, better-informed ones. But we are united in our belief of the sanctity of the scientific method. Of the value of science in improving our lives, and that scientific evidence should inform policy.
March for yourself, and as a first step.
It’s unlikely that the March for Science will directly lead to any policy change. But I would argue that it shouldn’t have to. And that’s not why you should march. March because you have a message worth hearing, and a thousand voices are louder than one. March for yourself. It can be cathartic to stand in solidarity with thousands of strangers all joined in the same cause. It can be inspiring to hear the stories of others. Laugh at some witty signs. Make sure to carry one yourself. And then return home energized, but don’t stop there. Get involved in local outreach. Write an op-ed to your local paper. Explain what you do to all your non-scientist friends and family members – and, you know, maybe the British bartender at the Canadian hostel where you’re staying*. Start a blog or a podcast. Start your political involvement by marching for science. And then stay involved.
*It was my last night on vacation, and I was nerding out pretty hard. I’m sure the poor guy got much more than he bargained for when he asked me where I was from and what I did.