The March for Science went viral last week and the scientific community is trying to figure out what it means. In my mind, it’s a major opportunity for scientists to become more engaged. Those of us who have worked in science policy and science communication for years should welcome new colleagues and friends aboard, share what we know, and help make the marches and associated events a success.
It’s also a good time for us to get real about the relationship between science and politics as well as each of our individual and institutional takes on what engagement, advocacy, and political action really mean.
Here are a few more thoughts:
The marches are part of a growing suite of engagement options for scientists. Scientists are increasingly interested in getting involved in policy and politics. The institutions that serve them have invested a lot of new resources on this front, but many scientists seem to be wondering if that’s enough. Indeed, part of the reason we’re seeing viral responses to efforts like 500 Women Scientists, Indivisible, Rise, the Women’s March, 314 Action, and now the March for Science is that people are looking for answers through new channels. They feel major urgency and they aren’t seeing that reflected wholly by the leaders in their community. Scientific societies and advocacy groups should be excited to see so many new efforts popping up and should find ways to channel some of this great energy into concrete, effective action. At the same time, there’s no singular or perfect way to be a scientist in public life. Some scientists will want to march. Some will want to Tweet. Some will want to meet with members of Congress. Some will want to work to make their universities more welcoming for everyone who wants to do science. Some will run for office. Scientists are human, after all, and importantly, they are also citizens who will interpret what citizenship means differently. The key is being clear about our values and what sort of public engagement we think is effective and why.
Scientists have marched before and it’s been super cool. In 2012, Canadian scientists marched on Parliament to protest cuts and censorship. By all accounts it was a successful event that helped highlight the valuable role science plays in public life. Similarly, when 500 Women Scientists participated in the Women’s March, I think everyone felt great about it, including other marchers who yelled, “Yay science!” when they saw researchers in lab coats. A scientists’ rally outside the American Geophysical Union last year was similarly well-received. Bottom line: this is not unprecedented, though the size and scope of this march may be a new thing for the scientific community.
We can improve the relationship between science and politics, but we can’t wish it away. American politics has radically changed in the past 10 years and the prospect of returning to the post-War, bipartisan political order seems dim. But regardless, when we say we want to “keep politics out of science,” we’re engaging in what I would bluntly call a form of politics-denial. Politicians and ideologues will always try to interfere with and disparage science they don’t like and use science and scientists they do like in service of political arguments. At the same time, political choices influence the types of science that get funded. We should also remember that the politicization of science is not new, at all. Robert Oppenheimer had his security clearance stripped because of his political beliefs, including his skepticism about nuclear weapons policy. Even Einstein found his work attacked by reactionary anti-Semites, writing to a friend in 1920: “This world is a strange madhouse. Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political party affiliation.” Fast forward to today and censorship and immigration bans are having concrete, material effects on science and the scientific community’s ability to serve the public. Of course this is political and therefore “politicized.” As I wrote after the election, scientists have to do a better job grappling with their relationship to power. So many parts of our community have been sheltered from politics, but we’re really in a different spot now. Scientists have also lost a lot of power and getting it back will involve both more effective engagement on the civic, education and policy front as well as direct engagement in the political process. We have to make the case for science and thankfully, we can, because science, done well, fundamentally serves the public interest and makes people lives materially better.
Marches are open and democratic; get creative. Some scientists wonder if a march is effective. Most people who participate in marches wonder the same thing! I would say to them: find a way to participate that’s effective for you and your audience. If you’re coming to DC for the march, do you want to meet with your member of Congress or the folks who represent your field to Congress at a scientific society? If you’re hosting or participating in a sister march, can you marry that with a teach-in on a local issue you care about? That’s the beautiful thing about big, democratic events. They are what we make of them! So let’s get creative and have a good time. This is new and it’s worth figuring out what we want it to be, together.
Given the above, you can see why I view negativity about the march as premature and unhelpful. Dr. Robert Young’s essay in the NYT expressing concerns about the march, for instance, presented it as if it’s a trade-off with doing in-person civic engagement at the local level. It simply isn’t, but those sort of responses are typical of some of the negativity we often see and hear in our community when someone tries something new. Slate’s Eric Holthaus has a good rejoinder, including links to other scientists’ commentary. Bottom line: if you don’t think the march is a good idea, come up with a better one and do that. It’s a big world out there and as Katharine Hayhoe once told me, we need to do a better job building each other up instead of tearing each other down.
Originally published at Science Communication Media.