What Exactly Are People Marching for When They March for Science?

The event has around 21 stated goals.

Neuroscientist Shruti Muralidhar and microbiologist Abhishek Chari at a rally in Boston.  (Steven Senne / AP)

The March for Science began unceremoniously on January 25, with vague ambitions, a hastily designed logo, and a Facebook page inspired by a throwaway Reddit comment. Six weeks later, and it has blossomed into a huge movement. It has attracted both support and controversy, and a deluge of opinion pieces about whether it should take place at all. At least one thing is clear: It is definitely happening. On April 22, coinciding with Earth Day, large crowds will take to the streets of Washington, D.C. and over 360 other cities. Across six continents, they will, as stated, march for science.

Which means what, exactly?

“Science” isn’t a monolithic entity. The term contains multitudes. There’s empiricism itself, and the primacy of evidence in making sense of the world. There’s the scientific method—a system for gathering evidence. There are the various fields and sub-fields in which that method is used. There are the people who deploy it—scientists obviously, but also teachers, journalists, doctors, and more. Given that plurality, I wondered, what exactly are people marching for when they’re marching for science?

I first tried to answer that question by looking at two sources—the March for Science’s website and its Facebook group—and collating every statement that could be reasonably interpreted as a goal. I found 21.

  1. Celebrate “passion for science.”
  2. Celebrate what science does for people and “the many ways that science serves our communities and our world.”
  3. Encourage the public “to value and invest in science” and “appreciate and engage with science.”
  4. Encourage scientists to “reach out to their communities” and share their research and its impact.
  5. Encourage scientists to “listen to communities” and consider their research from the perspective of the people they serve.  
  6. Affirm science as a “vital feature of a working democracy.”
  7. Show science to be “first and foremost a human process” that is “conducted, applied, and supported by a diverse body of people.”
  8. Support research “that gives us insight into the world” and “upholds the common good.”
  9. Encourage people to “support and safeguard the scientific community.”
  10. Call for robust federal funding “in support of research, scientific hiring, and agency application of science to management.”
  11. Advocate for “open, inclusive, and accessible science” that is “freely available.”
  12. Support science education that teaches people “to think critically, ask questions, and evaluate truth based on the weight of evidence.”  
  13. Encourage political leaders and policy-makers to enact evidence-based policies, and “make use of peer-reviewed evidence and scientific consensus, not personal whims and decrees.”
  14. Oppose “policies that ignore scientific evidence” or “seek to eliminate it entirely.”  
  15. Oppose policies that “threaten to further restrict scientists’ ability to research and communicate their findings.”
  16. Oppose an “alarming trend toward discrediting scientific consensus.”
  17. Oppose the “mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue.”
  18. Protect science from “manipulation by special interests.”
  19. Hold leaders in science and in politics “accountable to the highest standards of honesty, fairness, and integrity.”
  20. Stand up for scientists: “Speak up for them when they are silenced” and “protect them when they are threatened”.
  21. Encourage and support a new generation of scientists “that increasingly includes historically underrepresented groups.”

You could argue about how I’ve split or lumped these, but in essence, that’s a lot of goals.

They also differ substantially in content and approach. Some feel oppositional; others, celebratory. Some use language that would not be out of place in a science fair; others use the rhetoric of protests. Many directly contradict statements that the march “is not a political protest” (from its own organizers), or that it is “not about scientists or politicians” (from its own mission page). It is clearly about all of these things.

“I think the organizers need to come up with two or three top messages that they want to really drive home,” says Maureen Boyle at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, who will be marching in DC. “And that needs to be framed around the current problem in society – the denial of evidence, and the denial of facts.” Boyle, a neuroscientist who now works in the highly contentious area of drugs policy, is keenly aware that translating scientific evidence into policy decisions is no easy task. But “we need to at least be starting at the same baseline,” she says.

That is hard when the administration denies that climate change exists, courts the anti-vaccine community, and favors legislation that could effectively displace scientific evidence from the policy-making process. Meanwhile, the President and his staff regularly state easily disproven falsehoods, billing them as “alternative facts” and dismissing contradictory evidence as “fake news”. “There’s no such thing anymore, unfortunately, as facts,” said one surrogate.

If there is one issue that unites the marchers, scientist or non-scientist, Democrat or Republican, that’s it—the undermining of scientific evidence. “The discrediting of the scientific method is what we need to stand against,” says Caroline Weinberg, a writer and public health researcher who is co-chairing the march. “That’s the thing we most need to advocate for.”

Weinberg admits that this problem pre-dates Donald Trump’s presidency. “There’s been a slow building of science denialism in both the government and in society in the general,” she says. “A lot of people have been trying to fight it, but there hasn’t been a global organization of scientists standing up for it. And there should have been. There’s no reason I couldn’t have done this 5 years ago, but it reached a boiling point. And everyone had a different reason they were set off.”

She embraces that plurality, in both of the march and the marchers. “The reason why so many people have become enthusiastic is that it’s not specific to climate change or vaccinations, genetics or physics,” she says. “It’s a march for science in general, and everyone has a part of that to connect to.” Consider the march’s Facebook group, with its 838,000 members and counting. In just the last few days, people have posted that they are marching: in defense of evidence; for cures to diseases; in support of people from disadvantaged backgrounds who want to be scientists; for their students; and to protect land, air and water. “I march for fungi,” wrote one member. “Censorship of scientists is why Krypton exploded,” said another.

Of the tens of thousands of volunteers who have signed up to help with the march, most are not scientists. Beth Powder, for example, is a TV production manager from Toledo, who last took a science class at age 15. Come April 22, she’ll be marching in Ann Arbor. “In my area, I know about 20 people who are going, and the extent of our engagement with science is that we occasionally read New Scientist,” she says. “Most of the people I grew up with in San Francisco are also marching, and only three have science backgrounds.” And yet, their motives are the same as Boyle’s and Weinberg’s. “Our current administration is attacking reason in and of itself, and that poses a huge threat to our society. I want to register my discontent, and to meet other like-minded people who want to fight this disassembly of our most important institutions.”

Nicole Ferraro, a writer and editor who will march in New York, agrees. “I don’t think we’ll march and the administration is going to change its ways,” she tells me. “But the main reason to do something like this is to show up, so that people can see that there are millions gathered in the streets who say science is important.”

Critics of the march have suggested that it could have a more divisive effect, portraying science as a partisan issue and inextricably linking it to liberal, left-wing politics. But Michael Rodman, a database administrator from Oklahoma City, disagrees. As a registered Republican, he says that his political views have never come up in his discussions with fellow marchers, with whom he finds much common ground. Rodman mentors students who are being poorly served by the state’s poor science education standards, and he rankles at representatives who have tried to disprove global warming by bringing snowballs to the Senate floor. “It makes us all look like idiots,” he says. “A sense of anti-intellectualism has permeated the country. Someone needs to take a stand.”

That being said, the people I spoke to, Rodman included, didn't know of other Republican marchers. They clearly exist, but it's likely that they are in the minority. “Ordinarily, it would seem partisan for scientists to stand up against a particular administration,” adds Ferraro. “But right now, this is an urgent moment in time. There’ll be a lot less damage done by scientists gathering in the street than by an administration saying science isn’t real.”

But it’s too simplistic to paint the White House as being “categorically anti-science,” argues Beka Economopoulos, an activist and co-founder of a mobile natural history museum. “They’re doubling down on space exploration but cutting NASA climate research. Industry science won’t be on the chopping block, but basic research will be,” she says. Likewise, the march shouldn’t be naively “pro-science”. Science is not an inherently noble pursuit: the same process that leads to medical treatments also gave us nuclear weapons and eugenics. Science is a tool, and Economopoulos is marching to ensure that it is pointed in the right direction. “The relevant question is: whose interests does science serve?” she says. “And the kinds of science that protect people–like climate science, or public health, or research into water quality—are the kinds that are most at risk.”

To her, science has always been a political issue. There’s a long lineage of prominent scientists—from Rachel Carson to Albert Einstein to Michael Mann—who have spoken out politically, and a recent study (which I covered last week) showed that such advocacy doesn’t damage a researcher’s credibility. “We need to recast scientists not as dispassionate data junkies but as people who care—who are doing this work because they want to solve problems,” Economopoulos says.

Lucky Tran, a science communicator at Columbia University, adds that “the separation of science and politics has never made sense to me,” because politics determine which groups of people get to participate in science at all. Tran himself was born in a refugee camp in Kuala Lumpur, to parents who fled the Vietnam War. He emigrated to Australia, where he began a career in science, before eventually moving to the U.S. “Policies that accommodate refugees are the reason why I got to be a scientist, and the US immigration ban is now denying a whole generation of people that opportunity,” he says. That’s partly why he’s marching. “Science is done by people, so if there’s an attack on those people, we’ll have fewer scientists and less diversity in science. That’s a problem.”

But the March for Science has drawn heavy criticism for its untenable insistence that science is apolitical, and for repeatedly posting tone-deaf messages from the various Twitter accounts. “We are absolutely apologetic for that and we feel terrible,” says Tran, who is on the steering committee. “The team isn’t a monolith and there are lot of people in it, some new to movements. We care about marching for the social good, and having inclusive language. We’re working on that right now.” Time will tell if that is enough to win back people from marginalized groups, who already feel alienated by repeated failures to address their concerns.

These same issues—muddled goals, fractured communities, disputes about intersectionality—also affected the Women’s March, and perhaps inevitably so. “Of course it’s difficult to pull together an enormous group ... who may have nothing in common other than the conviction that a country led by Trump endangers their own freedoms and the freedoms of those they love,” wrote Jia Tolentino in the New Yorker. “That conviction is nonetheless the beginning of the resistance that those planning to attend the march hope to constitute.”

That is Economopoulos’s hope for the March for Science. “I wouldn’t reduce it to a celebration of science, and I wouldn’t define it oppositionally,” she says. “I think it’s a coming out party for a movement of engaged scientists and supporters, who are more outspoken about the ways in which science can serve the public good and the need to protect such science.”

“In my lifetime, I’ve not seen scientists be so willing to come out in to the street,” adds Tran. Even top-tier scientific organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Society for Neuroscience, and the American Geophysical Union have endorsed the march. “That’s historic; six months ago, you would never have seen that. Six months from now, will we still see those societies engaging? It’s important to make sure that that wave sustains itself and isn’t just contained to one day.”