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To March or Not to March for Science?

National demonstrations prompt enthusiasm, debate

When stem cell and molecular biologist Sadaf Atarod came to the United States for a postdoctoral fellowship at BU, she didn’t imagine that she’d be attending quite so many marches. But as a scientist and an Iranian citizen—currently forbidden to travel freely into and out of the United States by the Trump administration’s travel ban—she has already felt compelled to stand up for climate science and to speak up on how the ban has affected her and her Iranian peers. “It’s kind of funny, because I have never been to marches before,” she says. “I never felt like I had to do such a thing.”

On April 22, Atarod, driven by her sense that scientific research “is not valued as much as it used to be,” will be rallying again, this time at the March for Science. The march is an international event, with a central gathering on the Washington Mall in the nation’s capital, and 480 satellite marches, among them one on the Boston Common that’s expected to draw 50,000 people. “I think it’s a good initiative, and perhaps it will lead to something positive for science,” says Atarod, who plans to attend the Boston March with a handful of colleagues from the Center for Regenerative Medicine. “Scientists have not been participating like they should have been, and for once they are speaking up.”

Alarmed by the Trump administration’s proposed budget, which would slash federal funding for science and humanities research, and dismayed by government appointees who show open contempt for evidence-based policy, like Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt’s rejection of established climate change research, scientists—traditionally a cautious, apolitical group—are starting to speak out. “We all now feel like there’s much more onus on us to advocate for facts, for science, for truth, in a way that we didn’t feel was necessary before,” says Gloria Waters, a BU vice president and associate provost for research. “Scientists need to have a greater voice, and let people know what they’re doing for the public good.”

While some welcome the March for Science as part of this political awakening, others worry that it may convey an anti-Trump message, which could alienate some conservatives, politicize science, jeopardize funding, and further polarize the country. Kyle Pedro (MED’19), a PhD candidate in microbiology and part of the Immunology Training Program, says he actively follows politics, “cares about science and evidence-based policies, and finds it really frustrating when politicians seem to be making decisions that are not based on evidence, or making policies that are not based on evidence.”

Charles River Campus

Noon: BU community gathers at Metcalf Science Center plaza, 590 Comm Ave, then proceeds to Boston Common.

Medical Campus

1 p.m.: MED affiliates gather at the Boston Public Library (Copley side), then proceed to Boston Common.

Boston March for Science

1 to 2 p.m.: Parkman Bandstand kid-centric entertainment.
2 to 4 p.m.: Main rally with speakers and music at main stage, science activities for kids at the Kids’ Corner.

Despite that frustration, Pedro has not yet decided whether to attend the March for Science. “There are real concerns,” he says, adding that he and others have been influenced by a widely read January 31 opinion column in the New York Times titled “A Scientist’s March on Washington Is a Bad Idea.” The column, by coastal geologist Robert S. Young, who had an unpleasant brush with politics after releasing a 2010 report on sea level rise, warned that the march “will only serve to trivialize and politicize the science we care so much about, [and] turn scientists into another group caught up in the culture wars.”

“I remember seeing that article and thinking, man, is this really a good idea?” says Pedro. “While this march is intended to be nonpartisan, I think it’s a reaction to Donald Trump and the Republican Party gaining control of Congress, and some of the policies that they put forward. I think it has a partisan stance, regardless of whether that is what the organizers want from it.”

Nathan Phillips, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of earth and environment, had similar concerns after reading the Times editorial. “Early on I was thinking this march might not be a good idea, because it will make scientists look like just another special interest group who are out there asking for their cut of the federal pie,” he says. “But then I started thinking that it’s not only about scientists; it’s about science. And everyone should be a supporter of science.”

March organizers and partners have taken great pains to promote the march as a proscience, nonpartisan event. Its mission statement calls for supporters to “unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good.” More than 170 scientific organizations have signed on as partners, including major professional societies like the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Geophysical Union, the Society for Neuroscience, and the American Physical Society. AAAS chief executive officer Rush Holt, a physicist and former US representative from New Jersey, has been a notably outspoken proponent, urging members to attend the march and make “it positive, nonpartisan, inclusive, and diverse.” The AAAS is also holding a full day of science advocacy and communication workshops in Washington, D.C., on April 21, the day before the march.

Other professional societies have taken strong stands as well: the American Association of Physical Anthropology, holding its annual conference in New Orleans on April 22, has canceled the plenary talk so attendees can attend the local satellite march.

Some researchers say that such overt endorsements from professional societies and scientific leaders make them uncomfortable and put inappropriate pressure on them to attend the march. On the other hand, many say that the endorsement of national associations has helped allay their concerns about the march. BU anthropology PhD candidate Elizabeth Crocker (GRS’17), director of communications for the Boston satellite march, says: “I can tell my department, ‘The American Anthropological Association has endorsed the march,’ and when they hear that, their attitude changes from, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ to, ‘Well, let’s talk about this.’”

Crocker says she hopes that the march will be a turning point for science, one that ultimately leads to more open, productive conversations among scientists, policymakers, and the general public. Phillips agrees. “Providing more data is not the solution,” he says. “It’s about communication. It’s about relating to the public. I think that’s the ingredient for success in the March for Science: it is about science, it is about scientists, but scientists are diverse—we’re parents, we’re brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers. We are part of the community, and we care about the same things.”

11 Comments
Barbara Moran, Senior Science Writer
Barbara Moran

Barbara Moran can be reached at bmoran@bu.edu.

11 Comments on To March or Not to March for Science?

  • Betty J Ruth on 04.20.2017 at 9:19 am

    Regarding concern that the march “will only serve to trivialize and politicize the science we care so much about, [and] turn scientists into another group caught up in the culture wars.” I think it’s a little late for that. Science has already been trivialized and caught up in the culture wars. We must fight for it or it, and we, and all of society, will be lost. It’s that dire.

  • Andrew Wolfe on 04.20.2017 at 9:28 am

    This march won’t do anything to “alienate some conservatives, politicize science, jeopardize funding, and further polarize the country” than has not long since been done in the name of science, in particular, climate research. The huge volume of government science funding makes it impossible for research not to be politicized. As a conservative and a Roman Catholic, I intend to join the march as a way to de-politicize science.

  • Douglas Zook on 04.20.2017 at 9:28 am

    It amazes me that there is much of any debate on this. Can not those who are scientists in various fields — just like teachers, women, high school students, construction workers, whomever — practice active democracy?! How ironic and troubling that there is often authentic and legitimate advocacy for more science researchers to speak out publicly on their findings and work and be involved in the community fabric, but that now when we do, some object and see it as “partisan” and “political”. In this time of major assault in Washington on the importance of evidence and building a viable, sustainable future, voices of all must be out there and expressed. Have not we learned that silence and insularity and fear are major political statements? Moreover, the essence of so called “politics” is values — and expressing those values publicly to foster needed change is essential. Forget the debating. Scientists getting out there vocally and with conviction like citizens are now doing everywhere — is imperative and at the very root of re-building an active, biosphere-cognizant, peoples-centered democracy.

  • Tricia on 04.20.2017 at 10:21 am

    Definitely march for science. There are too many in power who seem to feel that scientific facts may be either believed or not — who feel their opinion, based on some kind of ideology (left or right) somehow alters proven fact(s). I am not a scientist but, I will march in support of science & scientists. I will march in support of truth. As Betty J Ruth stated above, “We must fight for it or it, and we, and all of society, will be lost. It’s that dire.”

  • CAS adjunct on 04.20.2017 at 11:40 am

    I was quite torn on this issue as well. But, as a scientist who does work in an area that is highly politicized I am choosing not to take part for the reasons stated in the article. I want society to take my scientific expertise at face value and not associate it with a political agenda. I believe my role as a scientist is to provide information in as honest, transparent and rigorous a fashion as is possible. I do not want to open my scientific work up to assault based upon my politics. I have come to believe that is even more important in an era when basic scientific facts are being challenged by political leaders.

    As a citizen I am very politically active but I do not want to mix those two roles. I strive to keep my lectures non-partisan as I do my science and I keep my politics and political action separate from my work. But I do respect my friends and colleagues who are taking part in the march and I understand their choice as I was close to joining them myself.

    • Thank you! on 04.22.2017 at 12:42 am

      Thank you so, so much, for expressing so intelligently your reasons for a choice that I share–I’m your colleague, and also a scientist.
      In this environment, with strong opinions (sometimes–see posts below–attacks) coming only from one side, I had come to doubt my own mind, I felt isolated and depressed. Your reasons are rooted in truth, and defend principles that I want to stand by and pass on to my students.
      Since I’m going instead to the “Out of the Darkness” Walk, I was thinking, what a big difference a word makes.
      “March” is belligerent, a priori confrontational, conveys frustration and negativity.
      “Walk” is generous, idealistic, edifying. And the typical organized walk raises funds for the cause. You don’t have to pay for the “Out of the Darkness” event–instead, there is a suggested donation which is a great way to be welcoming and still effective, in case the “March”ers were worried about getting less spectacular numbers than what they want to boast. It also serves the purpose more sincerely: since the marchers decry budget cuts (which–being in debt myself–I think should be dealt with–something has to go), then fundraising should be the first response. That’s how I consoled myself for feeling so isolated in my views.
      So, again, thank you for your courage and your logic, you did a lot to encourage me to keep doing the best science I can.

  • Les Kaufman on 04.20.2017 at 1:21 pm

    That we are having a debate about whether or not to support science is astounding, and it is slightly embarrassing that this should be the foremost issue on the table at Boston University of all places. Scientists marching for science is no different than judges marching for justice or doctors marching for public health. Justice and health are also highly politicized issues, yet our support for them are deeply entrenched in our democratic values and in our existence as compassionate, and potentially rational beings. Even more astounding is that a president of this great nation along with his retinue of disciples should directly oppose any science vaguely threatening to their personal bank accounts or those of their cronies still awaiting their government appointments. How we can rectify that situation is what we should be debating.

  • Christopher Schneider on 04.20.2017 at 1:39 pm

    Politics invades every portion of our lives and it is high time that we, as curators and practitioners of science, stand up for fact based decision making and science as a way of knowing. The politicized attacks on science, and on the very basis of facts, demand a response. EVERYONE who cares about science should be in the streets..

  • Eugene Benson on 04.20.2017 at 2:42 pm

    It seems to me that having scientists at the rally/march will send the message that we as a society need to use good science in making public policy decisions and that science research is an important investment.

    I’m an adjunct at B.U. In my day job I wrote about why I am going to be rallying for science on April 22. You can read my essay here: http://www.maccweb.org/news/340496/Science-on-Earth-Day-2017.htm

  • Ben Pearre on 04.20.2017 at 4:51 pm

    The argument that standing up for science politicises it seems odd.

    Reality–or our best understanding of it–or science–is innately nonpartisan, and promoting fact-based policy is only partisan to the extent that one political party is doing more than the other to resist facts. The decision to ignore it is partisan. But of course that doesn’t mean that telling people that they shouldn’t ignore science won’t be seen as an attack on their values.

    It _is_ an attack on their values! But for the “partisan” argument to make any sense at all, I’d have to see strong evidence that remaining silent in the face of any sort of misbehaviour–from genocide to intellectual atrocities to bigotry to smoking–is better than speaking out against it.

    I suspect that this conversation shouldn’t be about whether to speak on behalf of science, but how. And maybe what proportion of a scientist’s time should be spent honing yet another theoretical solution to a problem whose solutions we’ve understood for over a century (e.g. climate change) vs. trying to generate the political will to actually effect some change.

  • Kathryn DeFea on 04.22.2017 at 8:22 pm

    I do not think, as some state in this stream, that anyone is questioning supporting science. I believe that the issue is whether a political march is the appropriate means by which to support science. Marches are fun and they bring people together. That’s always a good thing. Whether they are effective in exacting change depends on the issue and how clearcut the demands of the marchers are. I agree that such a march could trivialize the issue to some because there will always be some who see a political march as a generic response of the political group not in the white house to the policies of the group in the white house. Personally, I think the battle for science begins locally–in the scientific community. Scientists are pitted against each other battling for dwindling funds. Scientists judge each other in the name of peer review. Scientists can put each other rout of funding. Maybe a march will bring the warring factions of science together. But regardless of who is in office, the scientific community has some work to do within itself.

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