Six Months Later, Controversy Still Plagues the March for Science

An open letter, signed by current and former members of the group, set off the latest round of complaints about its leadership.

Demonstrators march to the U.S. Capitol during the March for Science in Washington.
Demonstrators march to the U.S. Capitol during the March for Science in Washington. (Aaron Bernstein / Reuters)

On April 22, more than a million people took to the streets, in Washington, D.C., and over 600 satellite locations around the world, to march for science. But six months later, the eponymous organization behind those gatherings—March for Science (MFS)—is still struggling with many of the same issues that have troubled it since its conception.

On Monday, Aaron Huertas, the former communications lead for MFS, posted an open letter that called out the group’s leaders for creating a culture beset by miscommunication, opacity, and disorganization. “Though the organization calls itself an open, grassroots movement, it is run like a closed, hierarchical organization,” the letter says. Seven other people told The Atlantic that their experience of working with March for Science was consistent with the open letter. “I really do think everyone has the best intentions, but not everyone has the skill sets they need to run a grassroots organization,” Huertas says.

As an example, Angela Carpio, a volunteer who helped to organize a satellite march in the Twin Cities, says that the leadership team ignored her repeated requests for help in moderating the MFS Facebook group—a community of almost 800,000 members that Carpio single-handedly oversaw for months. Eventually, she just picked three people from the community to help. “We just do our own thing. We have no direction,” she says. “There’s no transparency and no one knows what’s going on.” (Koren Temple-Perry, the newly hired communications director for MFS, says that the organization has had internal discussions about how to improve the moderation process, and that a newly hired director of social-media engagement is working with the team to bring on more moderators.)

“This is what happens when you have a group of very passionate, well-meaning people without the organizational experience who take on a tremendous amount of work, with this sort of Herculean mission of saving science,” says Jacquelyn Gill, who volunteered for the March for Science in its early stages, left the organization in April, and had signed the new open letter. It set the stage for a culture that was big on enthusiasm and energy but weak on logistics.”

In a statement responding to the letter, Temple-Perry notes that the organization has taken several steps to address these problems, including soliciting feedback from partners and volunteers, running a retreat in May, issuing an open invitation to join an internal communications network, and staging biweekly calls with satellite organizers and partners. “Unfortunately, individuals on the letter have not yet called in to participate,” she notes. “That being said, the concerns brought up in this letter are being discussed by the board. We will continue to work toward greater transparency in all stages of our development as an organization and movement.”

But several of these measures were only initiated after the damage was done and volunteers had walked away, says Huertas. “People had stopped interacting with the national organization because they weren’t being listened to,” he says. “Volunteers don't see it as an effective use of their time.”

Rufus Cochran, who led the march’s satellite group in Indianapolis, has seen evidence of this through his attempts to unite leaders from the Midwest groups into a unified network. He says that around 8 groups have unplugged themselves from the national team because “their voices weren’t being heard” and several have become largely inactive. The central team, Cochran says, “are not 100 percent responsible for that but they’re a major factor in that loss of momentum.”

Despite the changes, confusion still abounds around the organization’s structure and finances. Huertas has pushed for MFS to publicly publish details of its expenditures and revenue, which he says is good practice for grassroots organizations—and a standard that several satellite marches have adhered to. Stephani Page, who was formerly on the national leadership team but left in April, says that even before the march, “I and others asked questions specifically about what was happening with the money. The response was always: All the money is going toward making the event itself happen. I never saw a budget.” When I asked about details of the organization's funding, I was directed to this page which breaks down revenue according to donations from organizations, individual donations, and merchandise sales, with no further information on financial structure and outputs.

The open letter also alleges that Caroline Weinberg—one of the three MFS cochairs—had been promoted to a paid director position, contrary to promises made that such positions would be open and competitive, and that the cochairs would only serve on the board or as advisors. After five rounds of circuitous emails, some of which wrongly stated that Weinberg is still simply a cochair, the MFS finally confirmed with The Atlantic that Weinberg is currently acting as executive director in an interim capacity; this was agreed to by the board of directors, and an openly posted search for a permanent ED will be conducted in the future. Weinberg is leading a team of eight other part-time staff working for MFS, including Terry Kush, the new chief operating officer. None of this information is currently available on the MFS website. Temple-Perry, the comms director, notes that the site will be updated soon.

Huertas and others claim that the March’s leaders have consistently ignored the views and contributions of people of color. As previously reported, diversity statements were repeatedly tweaked and pulled back after online pushback. Several individuals within the organization told The Atlantic that diversity concerns from people of color were met with hostility on internal forums, culminating in the resignations of roughly half of the MFS diversity committee in the week before the march. They requested anonymity because they feared harassment. Some of their colleagues who spoke out publicly said they faced online vitriol and threats.

Concerns around diversity strained relationships with partner organizations like 500 Women Scientists, a grassroots effort to foster more diversity, inclusion, and accessibility in science. “We were early supporters and partners of the MFS and it seemed, at first, that our values were aligned,” says Kelly Ramirez, a cofounder of 500 Women Scientists. So in February, when MFS drew heavy criticism for repeatedly posting messages that some thought were tone-deaf on Twitter, Ramirez and her team offered to help. “We had someone who would volunteer their time, but they weren’t added to any meetings or discussions. They used us as an example of how they were highlighting diversity, but we weren’t given a voice at the table.” By the time the volunteer was finally invited into MFS discussions, the group had had enough; they officially severed their ties with MFS in April. (“We are sorry to lose that connection, though we were excited to see that they continued to participate in the actual march as an organization,” said Temple-Perry in a statement. “We deeply respect their work and hope that there are additional opportunities to collaborate in the future.”)

On the day of the march itself, many speakers at the D.C. event emphasized the importance of all kinds of diversity, and several of the new recruits to the national team are people of color. But the signatories on the open letter feel that these changes are superficial. “From the outside, it looks like we’ve hired a racially diverse group of people with different social backgrounds,” says Amber Ying, who helps to moderate the Facebook group and volunteered for a largely defunct Boston chapter. “It feels like they’re only paying lip service to this idea of inclusivity. The actual practice of making sure people are heard is a much harder process and they’re not very good at it.”

Lucky Tran, who serves on the board, counters that “many on our board have served in and built grassroots organizations and social-justice movements, and we’re committed to creating a world in which science serves, and is inclusive of, everyone.” He says that MFS has worked with local leaders to organize aid for communities affected by Hurricanes Harvey and Maria, and has spoken up about social-justice issues like the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville and Nature’s since-retracted editorial on the removal of a statue of J. Marion Sims. (Carpio notes that the Charlottesville post only happened after she pushed MFS leadership to act—and after raising the matter on an internal forum, she was billed as “hysterical and divisive” by a satellite organizer.)

“The concerns voiced in the letter and elsewhere are highly valued, and dialogue like this is needed to make movements better and more accountable,” he adds. “We are all committed to working hard to address them and building a better and more just world.”

That’s what the signatories of the open letter want, too. They all feel that MFS has tremendous promise, and a large and motivated base. But they also felt that these opportunities were being wasted. “There are lofty goals and ideas, but not enough organization to distill that into action on the ground,” says Ying.