BOSTON – Hundreds of science-minded demonstrators converged on Boston over the weekend to test a prototype for the March for Science, a campaign that’s expected to bring out more than a million people around the globe on April 22.
Sunday’s “Stand Up for Science” rally took place during the height of this year’s meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and as a result drew attendees from the AAAS crowd – including Bish Paul, a molecular biologist who got his Ph.D. from the University of Washington and worked at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Paul, a gay immigrant from India, told The Boston Globe that his aim wasn’t to attack Republicans, but to defend the scientific community and what it stands for.
“We’re not protesting a party,” he said. “As scientists, we want to support truth.”
The Boston rally also brought out students, retirees and families with kids. One of the non-scientists was Anne Drowns, an education writer from the Boston area who said she wanted to thank the researchers who developed the treatment for her sister’s rare form of blood cancer.
“This is so personal for me,” Drowns told GeekWire. “It’s personal for everybody. If you stop and think about it, science touches everyone.”
Jane Lubchenco, a marine ecologist who went back to Oregon State University after heading the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, seconded that view during a preview of the march on April 22, which happens to be Earth Day.
“This is a march for and about science,” she told a standing-room-only crowd at the AAAS meeting. “It’s not a march of scientists.”
The Trump administration’s early moves are providing the sparks for the March for Science campaign, which currently comprises nearly 300 events in the Americas, Europe, Asia and Oceania (including the big one in Washington, D.C., and a Seattle march).
Those sparks include gag orders for researchers and park rangers, controversial overhauls of online data relating to animal welfare and climate science, and worries about future cuts in research funding. “When discretionary spending is threatened, R&D tends to be the first to go,” said Harvard physicist John Holdren, who was White House science adviser during the Obama administration.
President Donald Trump’s immigration crackdown is particularly worrisome, in light of statistics suggesting that at least 10,000 students and researchers at 60 U.S. universities come from the seven predominantly Muslim countries covered by Trump’s travel ban.
AAAS’ leaders are also concerned about the tone that’s often struck by administration officials.
“When officials use phrases like ‘alternative facts’ without embarrassment, you know there’s a problem,” said AAAS CEO Rush Holt, a plasma physicist who served in the U.S. House of Representatives as a New Jersey Democrat for 16 years.
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The March for Science puts some scientists, and AAAS in particular, in a tricky position. Many folks in scientific fields are reluctant to seem partisan – in part because it goes against the grain of scientific dispassion, and in part because so many scientists rely on government funding (or, in AAAS’ case, non-profit tax-exempt status).
Nevertheless, speakers at the Boston meeting offered up several tips for those who are thinking about getting involved in the political process to defend the scientific community:
First, get involved: Holt said that politics shouldn’t influence science. But does that mean scientists shouldn’t influence politics? “That converse just does not follow, logically,” he said. And scientists are figuring that out. “I am getting more calls since November than I can remember ever receiving from scientists who say they are thinking about running for office,” Holt said.
Be relevant: “Now is the time for a quantum leap into relevance,” Lubchenco said. That means explaining how science benefits society. Scientists need to “move beyond broadcasting facts, and even move beyond broadcasting really strong stories, to join in conversations with our fellow citizens who are not scientists,” said Amy Luers, director of climate change for the Skoll Global Threats Fund.
Help non-scientists join the cause: Holdren likes the suggestion that every scientist who goes to a march should bring along at least two citizens who are not scientists. “I think this should be true for speeches from the podium as well,” he said. “Particularly, bring along citizens who at least in part are representative of individuals who have been helped by science.”
Address solutions as well as threats: Lubchenco said it was important not to dwell too much on doom-and-gloom environmental scenarios. “The reality is that there are some huge challenges facing the world,” she said, “but it’s also true that there are a wealth of really amazing solutions that are bubbling up all over the world, and we don’t do a good enough job of telling the story about those solutions.”
Make friends, not enemies: Physicist Lewis Branscomb, former head of what’s now the National Institute of Standards and Technology, noted that scientists have allies on the Republican side of the aisle in Congress. “If there’s a chance of having strong friends anywhere in the conservative community, then don’t put them in the pot with everything else we plan to cook,” he said.
Tithe your time: Holdren said scientists should become more broadly informed about science and societal issues outside their own fields, and consider tithing “at least 10 percent of your time to public service, including public and policymaker education, and political engagement.” Lubchenco said academic institutions should change their culture “so that it’s more valuable and rewarded for scientists to be engaged in society.”
Train researchers for the real world: “You look at our universities, and you’ll find there are not very many of them that offer post-graduate or young-scientist programs in which people are trained for at least one year in the combination of how new companies are created and how innovations are done,” Branscomb said. “All of that needs to be stronger. And I believe that if it were, it might not be that the White House would say, ‘Wonderful, that’s what we’re going to do.’ But at least they might stop anti-doing it.”