March for Science Sparks Broader Discourse About Science Activism

Apr 24, 2017

Thousands of people turned out for the first ever March for Science this past weekend. It was actually more like six hundred marches in cities and towns around the globe. This unprecedented public show of support for science was largely prompted by what many view as the anti-science stances of the Trump administration. But the attempt to organize the science community has also revealed deep divides over the role of science in government, and persistent problems when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

The Problem

John Dupuis is a science librarian at Steacie Science and Engineering Library at York University, in Toronto. He chronicled the anti-science policies of former Canadian prime minister Steven Harper on his blog, Confessions of a Science Librarian. He has started doing the same for President Trump, but says it's a whole different ballgame.

“The Harper regime was just as anti-science as the Trump regime in a lot of ways,” said  Dupuis. “But they were a little shy about it. They liked to pretend to be pro-science. In the Harper regime, I had to go look for stuff. And let’s just say it hasn’t been such hard work for me to find stuff about Trump and science. It’s just flying in left, right, and center.”

Of all the executive actions, public comments, and proposals, to date, it’s President Trump’s budget plan that is most worrisome to John Holdren, who was President Obama’s top science advisor.

“If anything like the Trump proposals were accepted by the Congress, it would be an enormous setback for science,” said John Holdren. “Included are, astonishingly enough, big cuts at the National Institutes of Health, which ordinarily have enjoyed bi-partisan support.”

Federal research funding has come under attack before. But many scientists say something different is happening right now, under the Trump administration.

“I think the scale of the attacks is much greater, and it’s not just funding,” said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “This is actually dismissing scientific information, reversing decisions, undermining the process by which science comes into public policy, and attacking scientific information in the public arena, in the media.”

Holdren also points to the lack of scientists in key advisory and management roles in the federal government.

“There is no NOAA Administrator, no administrator of NASA, no Department of Energy Chief Scientist, to director of USGS, no director of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention,” Holdren rattles off. “One can hope that the Trump Administration will yet appoint a Director of the Office of Science and Technology in the White House, will make that person an assistant to the president for science and technology, so the person has direct access to President Trump.

That hasn’t happened yet.

The Solution?

As soon as President Trump was elected, the science community went on red alert. There were rapid-fire open letters calling for strong climate policy, increased science funding, and fostering diversity in science. Scientists started backing up government-held reports and data against the possibility of deletion, or at least their removal from the web.

Then, in late January, some scientists started talking about the idea of a march. Within days, hundreds of thousands of people had joined a Facebook page, and the March for Science was born. But it has been dogged by controversy throughout it’s short life.

Many scientists have worried that a march would stray into partisan politics – or be perceived as doing so – and damage the very credibility the march is intended to promote. Erin LaBrecque, a Florida-based marine ecologist, is in that camp.

“My gut reaction was ‘Oh, this is a really bad idea,’” LaBrecque recalls. “This march for science is trying to recreate something the Women’s March was doing. But in doing that, it would make the divide bigger. It wouldn’t close the divide. And I didn’t see that as a productive way to move forward – to move science forward.”

Rosenberg counters that scientists who didn’t march because they didn’t want to politicize science have missed the point: it’s already been politicized. And many draw a nuanced distinction between political and partisan. That’s the line that March for Science organizers have tried to walk.

But organizers’ insistence that issues like research funding take precedence over diversity have led to criticism that the March for Science is propagating a racist and exclusionary status quo that marginalizes people of color and other under-represented groups. And then, there have been the numerous communications missteps.

“They Tweeted in February that they’d been hearing from scientists that there might be problems with violence in connection with their focus on diversity,” said Zuleyka Zevallos (@OtherSociologist), a sociologist at Swinburne University. “That’s a dangerous historical connection that they are making from having minorities attend a science event to having it lead to violence. There’s actually no correlation between the two.”

Zevallos walked away from the March, as did Caleph Wilson (@HeyDrWilson), a biomedical researcher and digital media manager for the National Science and Technology News Service. They took to Twitter, instead, helping build hashtags - #marginsci and #AltSciMarch – that have developed into a vibrant public discourse about diversity and equity in science.

“One of the things that the hashtags were able to do is allow people to have those conversations in a way that can be visible,” said Wilson. “We could see each other having these conversations, as well as we could point the March for Science to these conversations.”

Many who attended the weekend’s marches were unaware of the turmoil playing out on social media. Others made the choice to march, despite the criticisms.

“I really did a lot of soul-searching about how to respond to those critiques that were raised, particularly by women of color,” said Hilary Palevsky, a postdoctoral scholar at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and a member of the local 500 Women Scientists group. “I think it’s important to be listening to the voices of the most marginalized people when we talk about how we stand up for science because in a lot of ways, the organization of the March for Science reproduced a lot of the same issues that have been long standing in the scientific community.”

Zevallos says there is a silver lining, though.

“I do think that there’s a positive momentum in that these conversations have been happening for a very long time,” Zevallos said. “Underrepresented minorities have been doing activism for decades. But I guess the hashtags, in particular, allowed these conversations to converge, and for different networks from different parts of the world to join their voices together.”

As March for Science organizers work to foster a more lasting science activism movement, Zevallos and Wilson hope that the conversations started by the March can be leveraged into more awareness and meaningful changes in the science community’s prevailing attitude toward diversity and inclusion.