Science Strikes Back: Anti-Trump March Set to Draw Thousands to Washington
Scientists are ditching their labs for the streets in a mass protest against the Trump administration’s war on facts, but will the effort resonate with skeptics?
By Oliver Milman
On Saturday, thousands of scientists are set to abandon the cloistered neutrality of their laboratories to plunge into the political fray against Donald Trump in what will likely be the largest-ever protest by science advocates.
The March for Science, a demonstration modeled in part on January’s huge Women’s March, will inundate Washington DC’s national mall with a jumble of marine biologists, birdwatchers, climate researchers and others enraged by what they see as an assault by Trump’s administration upon evidence-based thinking and scientists themselves.
Photo by Lindzi Wessel via Twitter @LindziWessel
The march is a visceral response to a presidency that has set about the evisceration of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and many of its science-based rules, the dismissal of basic climate change tenets by the president and his appointees and a proposed budget that would remove around $7bn from science programs, ranging from cancer research to oceanography to NASA’s monitoring of the Earth.
Many scientists at federal agencies, concerned their work may be sidelined or censored for political purposes, will take the unusual step of publicly damning the administration.
“It’s important for scientists to get out of the lab and talk about what’s important,” said Andrew Rosenberg, who spent a decade at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is now at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “You don’t check your citizenship at the door when you get a PhD. No one would tell an architect they can’t have a view on HUD [the Department of Housing and Urban Development]. That would be nonsense.”
Rosenberg said younger scientists, in particular, are increasingly rejecting a stance of studied silence when faced with what they see as threats to their profession.
“They don’t accept that they have to wait until tenure, comfortable in a lab to maybe then speak out,” he said. “Academia is less appealing to many of them these days, so they want to know how they can have an impact now. They aren’t content that people will just read their papers in academic journals. I think retreating to your lab and hoping it will all go away is not going to be the best strategy.”
The idea to march was first tossed around on a Reddit thread in January. One of those on the discussion, University of Texas postdoctoral fellow Jonathan Berman, decided to put the idea into motion. A day or two after being set up, a Facebook page promoting the march had attracted more than 300,0000 members.
The march now has dozens of people grappling with the logistics of the DC march and more than 500 companion events around the world. More than 100 organizations have lent their support, including the institutional heft of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general scientific organization, and the American Geophysical Union.
In March, Bill Nye, the bow-tied embodiment of science for many Americans, and Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician who alerted the world to soaring levels of lead in the blood of children in Flint, Michigan, were named as honorary co-chairs.
Organizers won’t commit to an expected number of protestors but are downplaying expectations that it will be anywhere near the scale of the Women’s March. The tone is expected to waver between pro-science and anti-Trump. The march will dovetail with the People’s Climate March, which will take place a week later.
Signs reading “Make America Smart Again” and “What do we want? Evidence-based policy. When do we want it? After peer review” are expected to make an appearance at the science march. Copies of the Lorax will be handed out. There may well be a sea of brain-like knitted hats.
“There will be plenty of ridiculous signs, it will be a lot of fun with serious moments too,” said Ayana Johnson, a marine biologist who became an organizer after seeing fellow scientists downloading climate data in case the administration removed it from public view. “I found that horrifying. That for me was the real alarm, but everyone has their own story.”
The satellite marches around the world suggest Trump isn’t the sole cause of scientists’ unease. Globally, there is a “trend of anti-intellectualism”, said Johnson, where politicians play to voters’ base emotions rather than provide evidence-based policy.
“We have gotten ourselves into this situation because the public doesn’t understand how science benefits us in our everyday lives,” Johnson admitted. “We haven’t done a good job communicating the value of the work we do.”
Some scientists, while sharing much of the anguish of the marchers, have questioned whether a protest in the heart of DC will in fact be counterproductive. Trump is probably more likely to respond to the march with an angry tweet than rethink cuts to cancer research, while Republicans who believe scientists are merely green-tinged activists with fancy titles will feel vindicated.
“The march won’t change any minds in the Trump administration and it won’t convince rural and working class America that science is relevant to their lives,” said Robert Young, an expert in coastal geology at Western Carolina University.
“The march is on Earth Day, which plays into conservative and climate skeptic thinking that scientists are just environmentalists. Just watch how it will be covered by Fox News and conservative bloggers.”
Young said he doesn’t think scientists should just “sit on their hands” and is similarly troubled that, for example, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt doesn’t accept the widespread understanding that carbon dioxide is a primary driver of global warming.
“But we’ve convinced all the people we are going to convince,” Young said. “We can march and shout our heads off, but that won’t engage with people who have not bought the message.
“We need more face-to-face interaction in local communities. We should do AM radio talkshows. That can be quite a challenge, but that’s the radio that my family and my wife’s family listen to and they are regular working-class Americans. We need to meet these folks where they live.”
While the public largely tells pollsters that it supports scientists and their work, there is underlying friction. Innovations in technology have helped drive automation of some jobs, while our ever-improving understanding of our environment has led to restrictions on some polluting industries. Trump tapped into this simmering angst and scientists’ challenge may well be explaining how their breakthroughs can help all of us.
The March for Science “will exacerbate rather than address these tensions” according to Jason Lloyd, a program manager for the Consortium for Science, Policy, & Outcomes at Arizona State University.
“The biggest issue confronting science is not a malicious and incompetent executive,” Lloyd wrote for Slate. “The critical challenge ... is figuring out how scientists can build an enduring relationship with all segments of the American public, so that discounting, defunding or vilifying scientists’ important work is politically intolerable.”
Even some of the march’s supporters concede that the event won’t change administration thinking overnight. But even people who specialize in cool, rational thinking occasionally need to wail their frustration.
“Scientists are very worried that we are losing science from the public sphere,” said Rosenberg. “I don’t think these events will prove a turning point but in Congress and in the states this will matter. Our representatives need to know that voters care about science.”