Scientists March on Washington and Cities Worldwide

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Publication date: 
25 April 2017
Number: 
49

Protesters rallied to support science and reject the dismissal of evidence.

This article was first published in the Politics and Policy section of Physics Today.

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March for Science main stage by Washington Monument

The March for Science was held beside the Washington Monument.

(Image credit - Andrew Grant)

Andrew Grant

For one Washington D.C.–area materials scientist, it was about communicating the essential role of basic research in daily life. For a science policy expert from Massachusetts, it was about getting the general public to think about science at the ballot box. And for a retired hydrologist from Ohio, it was mainly about expressing his displeasure with the primary resident of the white mansion several hundred meters away.

Although not everyone came with the same message, tens of thousands of people turned out on a cool, wet Saturday in the nation’s capital to show their support for science. Many more scientists and science enthusiasts joined in satellite marches around the country and across the globe. “It’s important to stand up for science,” said Stephen Indyk, a Mars Curiosity mission engineer whose sign referenced robots and aliens. “Outreach is the other part of the job.

Participants on April 22 were buzzing on the grounds surrounding the Washington Monument, despite the persistent and often driving rain. Some marchers brought their children or came with their research teams or university science departments. Carrying on a practice from the January 21 Women’s March on Washington, protesters wore hand-knitted pussy hats or versions that looked like brains. Most marchers brought signs; popular subjects included alternative facts, the role of science in going to the Moon and preventing polio, and the vulnerability of President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida to rising sea levels.

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Stephen Indyk with March for Science sign

Stephen Indyk works on the Mars Curiosity mission.

(Image credit - Andrew Grant)

Andrew Grant

Beginning at 9 a.m. several sponsoring organizations hosted teach-ins on saving honeybees, the physics of superheroes, and other topics of wide interest. At a session on whistleblowing, multiple government scientists in the audience expressed concerns. Speakers during the four-hour program, held on a stage with a clear view of the White House, included honorary co-chairs Bill Nye, Lydia Villa-Komaroff, and Mona Hanna-Attisha; astronaut Leland Melvin; and American Association for the Advancement of Science CEO Rush Holt. Thomas Dolby performed his 1982 hit “She Blinded Me with Science.”

The speakers were more ethnically diverse than their audience, which was largely white. The degree of emphasis placed on diversity and inclusion in science was a hot-button issue from the march’s inception through the big day. By and large the speakers emphasized the positive effects of science but chose not to call out sexual harassment, racism in environmental policy, and other failings of the science community, both historical and ongoing. Those omissions bothered Audra Wolfe, a Philadelphia-based science historian who had initially considered volunteering for the march but ultimately chose not to participate. “It’s closer to a science festival than a grassroots political march,” she said a few days before the event. “Science festivals aren’t about critiques.” She added that she was not opposed to a “celebration of science,” as the organizers framed it, but “I’m not convinced [that it’s] the solution to the current political moment.

Regardless of its merits, the March for Science was groundbreaking. Over the years, scientists have joined protests against specific government actions, most notably during the Vietnam War. But to advocate for evidence-based decision making and the institution of science as a whole—“That’s a new phenomenon,” said Wolfe, putting aside her personal views for her science historian’s hat. “And it’s an interesting phenomenon.

Although organizers billed the event as a political but non-partisan march, plenty of signs and chatter admonished Republicans, particularly Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. Phyllis Kittler, a research psychologist from New York, says she was motivated to march by proposed cuts to the National Institutes of Health and by reports of muzzled EPA scientists and the excising of information on climate change from the agency’s website. “It’s important to stand up for the idea that there are facts in the world, instead of alternative facts, and that science as a methodology is important to get at facts and drive policy,” she says.

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Bill Nye in March for Science crowd

March co-chair Bill Nye leads protesters toward the U.S. Capitol.

(Image credit - Cynthia Cummings)

Cynthia Cummings

It will likely take some time to determine the march’s effects. As of April 25, Trump had not commented on the march or addressed it on Twitter, though he did release a statement for Earth Day (that did not mention climate change). Rhonda Stroud, a nanoscale materials scientist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., thought it was important that scientists showed up en masse with their message. “It takes a critical mass of people to break through and get attention,” she says. Stroud, whose parents are physicists, marched with her physicist husband, Larry Nittler of the Carnegie Institution for Science.

Sandy Coen, a former U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist, was just happy to protest Trump and to be surrounded by his fellow scientists in doing it. Sporting a “Beeriodic Table” T-shirt and “USGS Retired” sign, he joked around with fellow marchers and recalled his state of awe after watching Charles and Ray Eames’s video Powers of Ten in his freshman physics class. A similar attitude of enthusiasm and solidarity characterized the thousands of people who braved the elements and at around 2 p.m. finally marched down Constitution Avenue. The marchers passed the headquarters of the EPA, the Smithsonian museums of American History and Natural History, and then continued on to the Capitol.

Hoping to build on momentum, the march’s organizers have called for a week of action. Dan Pomeroy, program manager at the MIT International Policy Lab and a former particle physicist who helped write op-eds trumpeting the march in publications around the country, agrees that the event was just a first step. He hopes that many attendees who aren’t normally politically active decide to jump into the fray, whether it’s by calling members of Congress or giving money to causes. Attendee Steven Gottlieb, a theoretical physicist from Indiana University, said he had already donated to the political action committee 314 Action, which supports scientists running for office. (Physicist Bill Foster, a Democrat from Illinois, is the only non-physician scientist in Congress.) “We need to have more scientists involved in politics,” Gottlieb says.

About the authors

Andrew Grant
Physics Today
agrant [at] aip.org
301-209-3025

Toni Feder, Paul Guinnessy, and David Kramer contributed reporting.

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