The world’s inaugural March for Science – a concerted effort by the scientific, the sci-curious, and supporters of reason and the pursuit of knowledge – took place last weekend on Earth Day, April 22, and historians are already referring to it as an “unprecedented” call to arms.
Big things have small beginnings. Starting with a discussion on a Reddit thread just a few months ago, and inspired by the Women’s March on Washington back in January of this year, it ballooned almost out of control into an event that hundreds of cities around the world took part in.
The demonstrations certainly left an aesthetic impact on the press and the public, but did it achieve its deeper goals? We spoke to Dr Jonathan Berman, a scientist and activist – and one of the original founding members of the March for Science’s National Committee – and Kishore Hari, Satellite March Coordinator, about the marches and the movement’s future.
“I think that there has been nothing less than a shift in the culture of science,” Berman told IFLScience. “That was already happening, especially with young scientists, but we became the fulcrum.”
“We also got the timing right. We came around at a time when moves were being made that existentially threatened science,” he surmised. “People noticed and wanted to demonstrate their support for science.”
"Noticed" is an understatement. All in all, the centerpiece march on Washington D.C., along with its 600 satellite marches elsewhere, involved hundreds of thousands of protestors – perhaps even a million.
A group of penguins and a surprisingly high number of dogs participated too, and a few scientific explorers in both the South and North Pole managed to show their support. Bill Nye threw everything he had into a march that was practically made for him and his generation of avid followers, and even the current incarnation of the Doctor from Doctor Who turned up at the London event.
“In D.C. only about 30 percent of attendees were scientists,” Berman added. He told us that the majority were people who actually just cared about objective truth and scientific discovery.
“It wasn't just scientists. There were teachers, parents, farmers, factory workers, children, and many more,” Hari added. “What was truly unprecedented was how many people came to stand with scientists.”
Plenty of environmentalists and climate advocates were present and clearly visible in the maelstroms, but the final collection of marchers was incredibly diverse.
Diversity, in fact, was something of a bugbear for certain researchers who declined to participate in the marches. As has been rightly pointed out, the world of academia and industry research is fairly biased, for the most part, against women and those who are not white.
A protester signals their allegiance in Paris. John van Hasselt/Corbis/Getty Images
Few would disagree that this is a complex and insidious problem that needs to be directly confronted. The organizers of the March for Science, for their part, included diversity as a part of their mission statement.
This polarized opinion: Some thought it made the March less about science and more about liberal politics, whereas others pointed out that science benefits from diversity and to ignore that would be heinous.
Whatever your opinion on the matter, scientists from all backgrounds and demographics ultimately joined the march. Importantly, LGBTQ+ groups, students, political activists, and feminists were also present.
“Science needs to be more diverse and represent more viewpoints,” Berman emphasized. “We built an organization whose leadership is mostly women, and people of color, and we made sure that the speaker lineup was diverse and spoke about diversity.”
“We had nearly 10,000 people in communities across the world participate in planning, facilitating, and executing these marches,” Hari told us. “Those people came from numerous different backgrounds and are set to push march's principles forward for years to come.”
Regardless of their backgrounds, all those on the March were united by two general threads of thought: Science is wonderful and should be promoted and protected, and politicians must stop twisting reality for their own nefarious purposes.
Some researchers were concerned that the events were politicizing science and that science itself should remain non-partisan. They would tend to agree with the initial part of the March for Science mission statement, which explains that the group “champions robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity.”
However, the National Committee also points out that in the age of Alternative Facts and massive reductions in research funding, proponents of science can no longer stand by as passive observers.
“In the face of an alarming trend toward discrediting scientific consensus and restricting scientific discovery,” the statement adds, “we might ask: can we afford not to speak out in its defense?”
Why people marched. CNN via YouTube
There’s no doubt that the threat to science in the US is particularly potent right now. We at IFLScience, and plenty of other media outlets, have comprehensively reported on the anti-scientific rhetoric of the Trump administration and many members of Congress.
The outbursts are equal parts bemusing, amusing, ludicrous, ignorant, and outrageous, from the State Senator that explained how human body heat is causing climate change to the president’s curious pet theory that suggests that wind is very deceitful.
As has been made clear by Trump’s executive orders and budget proposals, however, the forces of anti-intellectualism aren’t all talk. Significant climate change mitigation measures are being rolled back, federal scientists are being muzzled, and research funding is being cut to historically low levels.
The American public, however, are clearly not having it. While there are certain demographics for whom the acceptance of scientific facts will generally remain dependent on their partisan beliefs, a vast majority of the populace know that Alternative Facts are nothing less than nonsense, that cutting scientific funding is a thoroughly bad idea, and that protecting the environment is a top priority.
Berman recognizes that, despite Trump, the entire US government hasn’t been corrupted by an anti-science poison. When asked what he’d say to them as a collective, he told us that “the government isn't a single entity. It's thousands of different employees all working on shared goals.”
He then added, quite carefully: “To most of them I'd say: ‘Thank you for the work you do. It improves our lives every day.’”
So what impact do Berman and Hari hope the marches have had?
“I hope that it’ll lead to a new generation of thousands of vocal science advocates,” Berman replied. “I hope they write op-eds and host science fairs and build ties between scientists and communities. The march is planting seeds that may not blossom for decades.”
“The march catalyzed conversations in hundreds of cities across the world,” Hari noted. “I hope that conversation continues to dinner tables, classrooms, government agencies for years to come. Because it’s in those conversations where trust in science and scientists will grow.”
The organizers appear to be placing their hope in the youngest generations. This, indubitably, is a wonderful idea; after all, children are far more aware of truth and lies than people give them credit for.
This was encapsulated most spectacularly during a recent showdown between a grade-school girl and a top-ranking GOP lawmaker, where – to rapturous applause – the former asked the latter if he believed in science after he gave a total non-answer to a question about environmental protection.
The movement doesn't aim to end here. March For Science
The March is now focusing on a Week Of Action. Each day this week has a different theme, but generally, the idea is to encourage scientists to engage more with non-scientists and to support proponents of science to set up their own local chapters, to write to Congress, and to keep making their voices heard.
Perhaps most importantly, the organizers are asking everyone to share the most incredible scientific discoveries with others – particularly to those who will one day grow up, get the right to vote, and wield the power to change the country, and the world, for the better.
“If a single child who went to a march grows up and chooses a STEM career because of it,” Berman said, “isn't that worth it?”
A pair of protestors in San Francisco. Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images
Sure, the March wasn’t perfect. Perhaps the message could have been more streamlined and clear from the get-go, and maybe the diversity of the speakers could have been improved upon somewhat.
“As I remarked at the San Francisco event, there were millions of diverse voices that weren't with us on Saturday, whether historically excluded or that we haven't done enough to engage them,” Hari pointed out. “It is our collective responsibility to ensure those voices are included in science if we expect science to continue to succeed.”
Nevertheless, as the first-of-its-kind event, this was, as they say, unprecedented. As a start, it was stellar.
Against the forces of nefarious fiction, this was a global – and perhaps even populist – march for the awe-inspiring ingenuity of humanity. It was a worldwide rallying cry for knowledge, and that, indeed, is certainly worth celebrating.