By Eric Kong and Courtney Chandler
The March for Science is slated for Saturday, April 22nd, the weekend after Earth Day. What started as a trending idea in a discussion thread on Reddit has become a nationally-organized movement to put science and scientists out in front. It’s a nice sentiment – scientists getting out of the lab and collectively showing up in the national spotlight to promote an evidence-based political environment. But will it work?
According to their website, the official mission for the march is to “champion robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity,” and to do so by uniting as a “diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good.” Ideally, the end result (according to this mission statement) would be the enactment of evidence-based policies that best serve the public interest (and avoiding funding cuts to scientific research wouldn’t hurt either). While that does sound nice, is it really that cut and dry? And more importantly, how do scientists actually feel about it?
To answer that question, the research community at UMB was polled to gauge how they feel about the March for Science. Of the 106 respondents (consisting of students, post-docs, faculty, and lab personnel), only 51% were definitely planning on attending the March, with 27% still deciding. However, the majority of responders (58%) were not even sure if the March would be effective and 20% thought it would not be effective. Although this trepidation wasn’t entirely unexpected, it is worth talking about.
Opponents of the March are worried that it will politicize science and research. These misgivings stem from the idea that science is and should remain unbiased, an objective arbiter who deals only in data and reason. The March organizers formally share this ideal and have stated they are only advocating for science and research to proceed unhindered. They have even gone so far as to specifically ask that politicians and congressmen not attend, for fear of coloring the March with partisanship.
Regardless, opponents argue that in the wake of the recent election of President Trump, especially following the Women’s March on DC, the March for Science would appear to be heavily left-leaning. Opponents of the march worry about how it will be perceived, fearing that all science and research issues will be forever cast with left-leaning ideology, thereby making it a partisan political issue. It’s not difficult to see how this would hinder meaningful dialogue between politicians and impact funding and policy legislation down the line. Similarly, opponents worry that by being type-cast as liberals, they might exclude an entire audience from hearing their voice.
However, the concerns of advocates for the march aren’t imagined or trivial either. President Trump recently proposed a budget that included deep cuts to almost all science-related governmental agencies, resulting in a nearly 20% budget cut for the NIH and a 31% cut to the EPA for 2018 (amounting to $5.8 billion and $2.5 billion respectively). In February, a bill was proposed to abolish the entirety of the EPA by the end of 2018. Although these measures have yet to come to fruition, these insults clearly seek to undermine the merit and validity of scientific research.
This is alarming, not only for careers of future scientists, but also for the state of medical research in this country as a whole. Regardless of your political affiliations and ideological leanings, the fruits of scientific research have benefitted us all, particularly with advancements in medical care and drug discovery. The President’s dismissal of the importance of such research seems to raise the stakes for the march, lighting a fire underneath us.
Many of the hesitations about the march get at a bigger issue – scientists’ engagement with the public. The image of the lab coat-wearing eccentric scientist being shut away in some dark lab has perpetuated over the years. It doesn’t help that many scientists get too caught up in using research-specific, technical lingo, which poorly translates to the nearly 66% of Americans that don’t have education beyond high school or a GED. Even the most educated and effective political leaders don’t have a formal education in science. In fact, the STEM and medical fields have barely over a 4% representation in Congress, with only 23 of the total 535 members holding STEM or medical degrees. This leads to a fundamental disconnect between the world of the scientist, the world of the lay-person, and the world of those that control our nation’s policies.
Given the continued rise in CO2 levels and the recent outbreaks of measles cases, whatever scientists have been doing to educate the public on key issues such as global warming and vaccination safety is no longer working. Scientists need to be involved more with the public, with many researches advocating for increased public outreach, community engagement, and communication with local leaders and politicians. They argue that interactions on this level are more meaningful than a one-time national showing and are where scientists can affect the most change. This ideology was reflected in the polling data – 89% of those surveyed thought that scientists should be more involved in public engagement and 78% thought scientists should be more involved in politics.
And so we find ourselves asking: why not both? Why can’t the March for Science happen as well as having scientists increase public engagement on a community level? These two actions are not mutually exclusive from each other. And in fact, both are necessary to the success of the other. The March would benefit public awareness and show the solidarity of scientists. But without the underpinnings of increased public engagement and outreach, this increased awareness could ultimately manifest into nothing.
We believe the goal of science and research should fundamentally be to benefit humanity and society. To this end, it should follow that scientists have responsibilities to society, even more so if they are funded by the people. To sit back and do nothing while the scientific method is demeaned or out-right ignored is irresponsible. Whether or not this march is the best way to effect the changes we want isn’t clear. Furthermore, those that oppose the march shouldn’t be dismissed – they have very legitimate concerns. These battling sentiments have encased the march itself, leading to the should-we shouldn’t-we debate and many scientists holding out from participating. There isn’t a clear-cut answer to whether we should or shouldn’t march.
And what about us? Well, we find ourselves still supporting the march, but from a stance of wary trepidation.