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Since the inauguration of the current administration, numerous groups have taken to organizing marches and rallies on the U.S. capitol to protest the unjust policies put forth by the President, his Cabinet, and Congress. Recently scientists have joined the fray, proposing their own march and teach-in. Slated for April 22nd, 2017, Earth Day, the March for Science will likely draw tens if not hundreds of thousands of participants from across the country and hundreds of satellite marches are being planned in cities and towns across the globe.
While there have always been individual scientists who have been actively involved in politics, rarely do scientists band together en masse to take political action. The contemporary political climate in America poses a significant threat to the future of scientific research and progress. Most recently, this threat has manifested itself in actions of the President, such as the decision to silence the EPA and the unconstitutional immigration and travel ban. However, the anti-science bias in American discourse did not originate with the President and his aides.
For years the media, in an effort to look objective and cover “both sides” of an issue has given equal airtime to scientists with decades of experience and individuals armed only with anecdotal evidence. This framing reduces the credibility of and the trust that citizens place in science. Scientific evidence overwhelmingly shows that the global climate is changing, yet many individuals, including the President, refuse to believe it. Vaccines have proven to be safe and there is no credible evidence to support the notion that they cause autism, yet people are convinced that they are dangerous and are putting their children and others at risk by refusing to vaccinate.
Politicians are culpable as well for the denigration of science. Some have adopted platforms denying climate change and calling into question the efficacy of vaccines. Several state legislatures have legally mandated that abortion care providers lie to their patients by, for example, making claims about nonexistent links between abortion and breast cancer. These legislators have funneled taxpayer dollars into anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers, which often make false claims about the physical and emotional impact of abortion. That it is legal for politicians to perpetuate lies that defy scientific fact to suit their political agenda shows a major failure in our political system.
Although it formed against this backdrop of anti-science measures, the March for Science itself is not a protest against any particular individual or political party. Rather, it is a movement to celebrate science and to bridge the disconnect between scientists and the public. The national March has five core goals, one of which is to humanize science. Our cultural image of a scientist is a man with wacky hair wearing a white lab coat, but that’s not what most scientists look like. If you walk into a physics department, you might be able to find someone wearing a radiation film badge, but most of us will be wearing jeans and T-shirts. We’re regular people, and we share the same desire to make the world a better place that drives many non-scientists.
Another goal of the march is to support scientists from all backgrounds and all walks of life. While inclusivity is important in and of itself, it also makes for better science. Studies have shown that groups that are more diverse in terms of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. are more innovative than homogenous groups. Right now a lot of scientists are feeling threatened, whether it’s because they were born in a Muslim majority country or because their research contradicts the current administration’s agenda. We need to do what we can to make sure that scientists from all sectors and backgrounds feel safe and comfortable disseminating their knowledge if we want to see a world that is better for all of us.
The march also aims to make science more open, inclusive, and accessible to the public. While some scientific research may seem esoteric, a lot of what scientists are studying has the potential to directly impact your life. We all deserve to be able to benefit from scientific knowledge. To this end, the national March for Science will be hosting a teach-in on the national mall. At the University of Maine sister march I’m organizing, we’re working on starting a podcast profiling local scientists so members of the public can see how their research is benefiting our community.
Along similar lines, another goal of the march is to partner with the public. Professional scientists make up a small portion of the population. If we want to affect public policy, we’re going to need supporters without scientific training to stand with us.
Finally, the march aims to reaffirm that science is a democratic value. Science is a crucial element in making informed policy decisions. For example, scientific research has been instrumental in enacting environmental protection regulations. Legislators banned lead paint and passed regulations regarding radon exposure because scientists demonstrated the danger they pose.
If the missions of the march align with your values, consider getting involved. The national march page has a list of satellite marches across the country and around the globe. A lot of these marches are being organized by STEM graduate students, many of whom have minimal organizer training. Find a march near you and reach out to the organizers, letting them know what skills you have to offer. Even if you can’t help plan, join us on April 22nd to help send a message to our elected officials that science matters.
Header image: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP