Scientists are taking the unprecedented step of staging marches in more than 600 cities worldwide in the face of what they see as a growing political assault on evidence-based knowledge.
Thousands of scientists and their supporters are attending March for Science events Saturday across the globe, including those in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Cape Town, London Madrid, Nigeria and Seoul.
In Berlin, organizers said about 10,000 people marched toward the Brandenberg Gate holding up placards that read “Facts not feelings” and We love experts — those with evidence.”
Marchers in Geneva carried signs that said “Science — A candle in the Dark” and “Science is the Answer.”
In London, demonstrators marched from the Science Museum to Parliament Square in Westminister holding placards supporting science.
The March for Science thrusts scientists, who generally avoid advocacy and whose work is based on impartial experimentation, into a more visible spotlight.
For nuclear physics graduate student Chelsea Bartram, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” were the last straw.
President Donald Trump had disputed photographic evidence of the size of his inauguration crowd. Reporters challenged him, prompting Conway to respond that the administration gave “alternative facts.”
“Many scientists I know, myself included, spend so many hours in the lab sacrificing enormous amounts of their life for this abstract idea” that understanding reality can benefit human civilization, said Bartram, who is pursuing a doctorate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“And then to have someone say, ‘Well, that’s not important anymore,’ it’s so devastating,” Bartram added.
So Bartram planned to support science’s role in government decisions on health, safety, the economy and more by joining demonstrators at the flagship March for Science event in Washington.
The Washington event featured speakers and several large teach-in tents on the National Mall where scientists, educators and leaders from a variety of disciplines discussed their work, effective science communication strategies and training in public advocacy. Organizers say the event is non-partisan and is not aimed against the Trump administration or any politician or party.
Organizers of the international event, which coincides with Earth Day, say it is the first step in a global movement to acknowledge and defend the vital role science plays in everyday life.
“Science extends our lives, protects our planet, puts food on our table (and) contributes to the economy,” says Caroline Weinberg, national co-chair for the March for Science.
“Policymakers threaten our present and future by ignoring scientific evidence when crafting policy, threatening scientific advancement through budget cuts and limiting the public’s knowledge by silencing scientists,” Weinberg said.
Trump’s most recent budget proposal calls for cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that would eliminate some 56 programs and drastically reduce funding for the agency’s Office of Research and Development and Science Advisory Board. Trump’s budget proposal also recommends some $6 billion in cuts to the National Institutes of Health, the largest public funder of biomedical research funding in the world.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a first-generation Iraqi immigrant, is the pediatrician who alerted officials in Flint, Michigan that the city’s water was contaminated with lead. She is a March for Science honorary national co-chair. “We march for science so that scientists have the freedom like I did, to speak out, free from politicization and to continue to make the world a better place.”
Organizers have not released expected crowd size estimates. But the dispute over crowd sizes was just one small example of what scientists see as a larger pattern. During the U.S. presidential campaign, Trump dismissed the scientific consensus about the dangers of human-induced climate change. His appointee to lead the EPA, Scott Pruitt, also does not accept climate science. He has repeatedly clashed with the agency he now heads.
But scientists say their frustration has been building for decades.
“We might have reached a tipping point now, but acting as though this is a new thing is giving too much credit to the current administration,” said Weinberg.
And it goes far beyond climate change, Weinberg added. “It’s about not paying attention to the best research on things like food stamps. It’s about cutting things like Head Start and after-school programs,” to name a few. “And that all affects health, because that’s a time to set kids on the right path.”
Critics say a public protest risks further politicizing science, turning scientists into just another interest group.
Bartram sums up a widespread response: on hot button issues like climate change, opponents have already done it. “I don’t think anything we do is going to further politicize it,” she said.
But if the goal is to get policymakers to listen, “A march isn’t going to change anything,” said Rob Young, head of coastal research at Western Carolina University.
Young says much of the problem stems from the growing disconnect between scientists and voters, especially the rural and working class people who voted for Trump. He says most probably have never met a scientist.
Scientists need to get out of the lab more, he said, and explain how their work affects people’s health and livelihoods.
That’s what march organizers hope, too.
The American Geophysical Union’s Davidson said a major post-march goal is more public engagement.
“I think the day is gone when scientists can stay in their ivory towers and assume that everyone is going to recognize their value,” he added.