Scientists are no strangers to having their work questioned by lawmakers, and now they are fighting back.
On April 22, scientists and their supporters will hold a March for Science to advocate for science and evidence-based research in policies. The main march will be held in Washington, D.C., and satellite marches will be held in other cities, as they were with the Women’s March the day after the inauguration. And the march’s organizers say they aren’t just fighting for more funding for science, or more influence in policy, but also to raise awareness about the type of research they’re doing.
Some of the Trump administration’s early signals on science have made scientists uneasy, like restricting federal agencies’ communication with the public and removing information about climate change from the White House website. But the March for Science isn’t partisan, according to its mission statement. Caroline Weinberg, a science writer and one of the march’s organizers, spoke with The Chronicle about how the organizers have responded to critics, including an op-ed writer in The New York Times, and how they will try to motivate participants to keep the momentum going long after April.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. What do you want people to know about the march?
A. The way that we look at the march is twofold. The first is that evidence-based science should be in policy. Science is about getting at truth. The scientific method is specifically designed to get around bias. That careful research should be involved in policy and hold more weight than the personal opinions or beliefs of people who are making decisions.
We also think that there is too much of a disconnect between research and the people who it serves. It’s really important to get scientists out into communities and have them talk about their research and what they are doing so that people can kind of connect with the research, so that they feel more invested in scientific policy.
If you get in a car accident and an airbag goes off, science is behind what does that, and saves your life. It’s just really important to us to make sure that we are able to communicate why science is so important in everyday life, what it can do for people. A large focus of our platform and what we are doing is on science education and outreach because we see that as the most effective way to get people to vote in a way that supports science.
Reaching out to politicians is important, and we’re encouraging people to do that, but people aren’t going to want to reach out to politicians about it unless they know that the scientific research on black lung is leading to certain changes in the way we handle coal, or research on lead levels and the EPA making measurements on that is what protects kids from having lead poisoning.
Q. How do you want march attendees and supporters to do that type of work?
A. We had people volunteer. We’re talking to a lot of scientific societies who are really excited about the idea, and I think that they are going to be a huge part of our ability to communicate and encourage scientists to get into the public.
We don’t want to be in a position when we are taking advantage of the fact that we have all these email contacts for people. That’s not what we are interested in doing, but we will in our thank-you letter be like, "If anyone is interested in working with us to do this going forward, we would appreciate your help." We’re hoping that even if it’s only 1 percent, if those people sign up going forward, then that’s a huge platform. And even if we don’t have that kind of retention, the scientific societies we’ve spoken to are very enthusiastic about helping us with that.
Q. How are you motivating students in labs, university researchers, and faculty members who may not have been outspoken before to come to the march or support this cause?
A. There were a ton of high-school students who reached out to volunteer, and we got parental permission and then tied a bunch of them into a group where they are basically adapting the platform for high-school students and helping us outreach to schools and museums and to different organizations.
We want to do the same thing for college students. Those of us who are working on this have spent a fair amount of time outside of college, and things have changed. The people who are experts in outreach are the people who are in that group themselves. We’ve reached out to a lot of schools and professors, and we’ve had a lot of people say they want to participate, but universities are often kind of reticent to get involved in something like that. We keep plugging away, hoping that a university or college that prides itself on its science department will actually make a decision that maybe they should take a stand for science, which would be nice.
A lot of professors have been really enthusiastic, and obviously big institutions partnering is amazing, but having individual support is really important as well. If they are getting the word and talking to their students and encouraging people in their departments to get involved, that’s a powerful thing as well.
Q. A recent New York Times op-ed said that the march may create another rift between scientists and lawmakers or further an existing divide. How would you respond to those critics?
A. It’s a really shortsighted perspective on it. We’ve basically tolerated, as scientists, antiscience policies for years — it’s not like this is a new thing — and have stayed quiet about it. At a certain point it’s time to actually stand up for your own integrity. You can’t just let everything slide. It happens to be equally important that this is a tipping point, time for everyone to get on board.
The way that we are pitching it, as an explicitly pro-science event and as an explicitly nonpartisan one that just focuses on science and science policy and getting people excited about science, I think is really important.
There’s been criticism, we’re not blind to that, and it comes from all areas. A lot of the time, the criticism we’ve heard is from established professors and scientists with tenure or who aren’t necessary at risk in the same way starting scientists are. I have a friend who is about to graduate with her Ph.D. in ecology, and she’s kind of like, "Where am I supposed to go?" She was planning on working in government. It’s hard because a lot of doors are now closing for people. It’s very easy for people who have low stakes to dismiss activism, but it’s not as easy for people who are seeing all the doors to their future close.
The types of science and the general things that are at risk right now are things that interest the public. We need to do research on health care because that’s what protects people. We need to do research on climate change because that’s what protects people. We need to do research on lead levels, and on clean water. All of those things are in the public’s best interest. I think probably 40 percent of the people who volunteered were actually scientists, and the rest just registered as science enthusiasts. This isn’t about scientists. It’s about science.
Q. Do you think the march makes scientists look like another interest group?
A. We are a science interest group in some ways. That makes it sound bad because it makes it sound like a lobbyist thing, which is absolutely not what it is. We’re a group whose interest is in supporting science. That is why people are standing behind us. Acting as though it’s only scientists who care about this is specifically unfair about the rest of Americans who care about science as well. You don’t need to be a professional scientist to understand science is important, basically. Acting as though this is going to be a pure divide between scientists and politicians or the public or whatever is acting as though the public doesn’t have any investment or interest in science, which I think is a really unfair and unfortunate way of looking at the majority of our population.
Q. What are some specific policies or actions you’d like to see from lawmakers after the march?
A. Better funding of scientific topics. The issue is that a lot of policy decisions are made in complete contradiction to what the scientific evidence shows. Our emphasis is to make sure that is no longer the case and to encourage a completely bipartisan acceptance of the fact that scientific evidence is more important than personal bias and that these things should be considered when you’re making policy decisions that will change our lives and the lives of all future generations.
Q. A year from now, or a few years from now, what would need to happen for you to have found this march and your efforts successful?
A. I don’t think there will ever be a point where the quest for this to be successful will end. Even if every politician in the government decided that, all of a sudden, they respected science and should consider it in every decision they make, there would still be the issue with the fact that some of the public doesn’t trust science.
I’m not idealistic or delusional enough to think that this is a challenge that will ever stop being a challenge. If changes happen, I would never give the credit to the march. I don’t think that politicians are necessarily going to look out the window and see a bunch of scientists and be like, "You know what? I should believe in climate change. I should pay attention. I should emphasize vaccines more." I don’t think that’s a reasonable expectation, but I do think that what we can work toward is toward encouraging science and having them consider it in policy. While I don’t think it would be entirely because of the march, I would hope — by any means — that it raises some awareness that at least someone feels that maybe, if so many of their constituents come out to support it, that maybe they should actually pay attention.