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March for Science in the US

Janin Istenits
April 20, 2017

Scientists around the globe will take to the streets in defense of their disciplines at the March for Science on April 22. But especially in the US, the march is met with mixed feelings.

USA Proteste gegen Donald Trump in Washington
Image: Getty Images/A. P. Bernstein

US President Donald Trump's attacks on scientists and his denial of climate change have been worrying researchers across the world.

For the upcoming "March for Science" on April 22, scientists will leave their labs and university lecture halls to fight for the recognition of their scientific and technological achievements. For some researchers, participating in the march to support science and the future of their disciplines is a must. Others are skeptical and scrutinize the intentions of a demonstration that could force researchers into a questionable position as political activists.

After the international "Women's March," it was obvious to Caroline Weinberg, a health researcher and science journalist from New York, that she wouldn't remain silent when the Trump administration started forcing scientists to keep their mouths shut.

Like no other president before him, Trump has been criticized for being fact-resistent and not acknowleding the insights of modern science, for instance with regard to climate change, climate protection plans or food safety.

On Twitter, Caroline Weinberg and other researchers expressed their concerns about the attacks against the sciences. Shortly after, the idea of the "March for Science" was born. 

"Many people had the idea for a march and all came to it for different reasons, but it came to life on social media," recalls Weinberg.

The "March for Science" quickly became a viral hit. Within a few hours, the number of supporters grew from 100 to more than 30,000. As of April 20, the event's official Twitter account has around 348,000 followers.

Earth Day 2010
Organizers hope that the March for Science will draw similar crowds to this Earth Day protest in 2010Image: Getty Images/Washington Post

Kathleen Rogers, President of Earth Day Network, became aware of the planned protest and contacted Caroline Weinberg and her team shortly after the announcement on Twitter.

The Trump administration's attitude towards science and technology has bred great resentment among the Washington, D.C.-based Earth Day Network and their employees.

"There are sweeping accusations against the scientific community. People are calling the scientists shady, dishonest. They are accused of having a political agenda and their work isn't taken serious anymore", says Rogers, who regards the march as a meaningful reaction of concerned scientists and US citizens.

That's why she supported the idea that the march will be held on such an important date as International Earth Day.

But critics condemn the project as problematic political enthusiasm.

"This march has been changing quickly from a pro-science march to a pro-social justice march," Jerry Coyne, Professor of Biology at the University of Chicago, said. "The real purpose is left behind, which is simply not a proper way to represent sciences."

He is still not sure whether he will attend the march on Thursday. 

Jerry Coyne
Coyne: the march is a social justice eventImage: Andrew West/British Humanist Association

"Initially, the organizers themselves weren't quite sure what message they wanted to convey with this event. That scared off many people," says Coyne.

In his view, scientific issues are used to protest against certain parties and this casts scientists and their work in a negative light.

A question of money

H. Sterling Burnett, a research fellow with focus on energy and environment at the Heartland Institute in Chicago, is among those scientists who have publicly spoken out against the idea of the "March for Science." 

"Climate researchers are worried about their funding, that is all this march is about," Burnett said. "They want the government to continue funding their projects and if they stop, the researchers claim that the Trump administration is attacking science."

The institute for which Burnett works is as skeptical of climate change as Donald Trump. Burnett shares these views and regards the upcoming protests as a reflection of dissatisfied climate researchers across the country. 

"This is not about whether Trump is attacking science, this is about whether Trump agrees with their views or not," Burnett said. "And if he continues to fund other branches of science, they will be even more upset."

This reasoning is simply not enough for Caroline Weinberg: "Funding is important, yes, but this is about far more than that.  We are fighting for our future and the future of our planet here. If that's not something worth fighting for, I don't know what is."

It would not remain without consequences if scientific evidence was disregarded in policy making, Weinberg believes. 

"We all populate the same planet and share the risks of devaluing science," the researcher said.

Keeping an eye for the bigger picture

Other scientists simply doubt that the protest movement will have a great impact in the United States. 

"The march won't change the mind of the people, whose minds need to be changed," Robert Young, coastal scientist at Western Carolina University, said. "It's not going to impact the Trump administration in any way. I am not quite sure what would impact the current president, but I guarantee that a march will not."

Instead, he believes that a lot of effort is needed to achieve a change. 

Robert Young
Young on a research trip with some of his studentsImage: Ashley T. Evans, WCU

"We need to communicate directly with the communities by drawing attention to current problems through personal dialogues", continued Young.

The focus should be on the local communities, Young said - especially in the rural areas, where many skeptics live. For Young, it's the voters scientists have to reach out to, because they could make a difference in years to come.

This is precisely what's on the agenda of the organizers behind the "March for Science", says Weinberg, who is also keeping an eye on the bigger picture and is already thinking about the time after the demonstration.

"Long term, we plan an organization that centers on education, outreach, and advocacy," Weinberg said. "We hope to break down the barriers between scientists and their communities, encouraging a dialogue and engendering greater trust."

Weinberg and her team will be in close contact with scientific institutions all over the country, working with them on lasting changes in society with regard to the future of science. Important groups have endorsed the march, such as the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Earth Day Network or the dialogue platform Science Debate.

The "March for Science" on April 22 will not only take place in Washington, D.C., but also in many other cities around the globe. Scientists and supporters in Berlin, Vienna, London, Amsterdam, Melbourne or Hong Kong will take to the streets.

Caroline Weinberg is still fascinated by the growth of the project she started with her colleagues back in January: "It is inspiring to people in the crowd and those observing and we hope that the momentum carries forward long after April 22."