clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Scientists are going to march on Washington. Here’s why that’s awkward.

The scientific community has long been wary of politics, but that’s changing.

The Debate Is Over' performance piece as part of the People 's Climate March NYC Sept 21, 2014
Keith Getter / Contributor / Getty Images
Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

In 2015, President Barack Obama signed an executive order that created the White House’s Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, a team of social scientists tasked with using psychological research to make the government work better. Mostly, the team went after projects like A/B testing language on a human resources form to get more service members to sign up for a savings plan, and testing whether a single signature box could get government vendors to report sales more accurately.

It was a small but meaningful program — one that showed how much the Obama administration valued scientists’ input, even in how to improve bureaucracy. Though the Obama years weren’t paradise for scientists — sequestration cut divots in research budgets, and funding for the National Institutes of Health essentially flatlined, among other things — the scientific community generally felt valued and respected.

With Donald Trump as president, that assurance is now gone.

Trump has plans to dismantle Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration regulations, and to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. And he seems to have little regard for consulting experts for any matters of government. Look at the botched rollout of his immigrant and refugee executive order, or the fact that the administration didn’t consult with the agencies that would have to oversee the order’s aftermath.

With Trump in the Oval Office, scientists are afraid of losing their seat — perhaps permanently — at the nation’s decision-making tables. And they’re starting to take action. In the past month, we’ve seen an unprecedented mobilization from scientists — to protest on the National Mall at a March for Science in April, to run for public office, and to collect and save the nation’s climate and energy data in case of a purge.

But at the same time, science and politics can make for an awkward pair. Many scientists have long preferred to operate outside the political fray, cloistered in their labs. Some scientists whose work overlaps with activism — like the researchers who helped uncover the water crisis in Flint, Michigan — have not been not warmly received by the scientific community. And many fear that if science becomes more political, their ideas will be even more discredited.

Scientists are taught to consider all the possibilities, the multiple competing hypotheses. And here’s one they’ll have to wrestle with: A March for Science could be self-defeating. It could further politicize science, and further embolden conservative opponents to tune out scientists’ concerns.

The case for a March for Science

Natsmith1 / shutterstock

On the day of the Women’s March on Washington, Jonathan Berman, a biology postdoc at the University of Texas Health Science Center, was reading a Reddit thread discussing an article headlined “All References to Climate Change Have Been Deleted From the White House Website” and saw a small comment. “There needs to be a Scientists' March on Washington,” a user posted.

“The only way to make things happen is to do them,” Berman says. And so he purchased the web domain, and set up a Facebook and Twitter account. And all of a sudden, he had a movement.

The reason for the march is simple: “It’s to send the message that we need to have decisions being made based on a thoughtful evaluation of evidence,” Berman says. The date is now set for Earth Day, April 22, and in addition to the DC event, there are plans underway for dozens of satellite demonstrations around the world.

Berman and the other two march organizers stressed on a recent phone call that the event will be nonpartisan. After all, they say, not all liberals share evidence-based views on issues like vaccinations and genetically modified organisms. To keep it nonpartisan, they will not invite any politicians to speak at the event. Instead, they say, it will be a show of solidarity for the scientific community and a response to the Trump administration’s orders to limit the communication of federal scientists to Congress and the public (orders which are likely temporary).

As Valorie Aquino, another one of the march organizers, sees it, “The actions taken by the current administration in their first week tells us we have to do much more than fight in the confines of our labs and offices. We have to be out there. Politicians have long inserted themselves into science, and it is imperative now that those of us who do cherish the enterprise of science push back.”

And many, many are. Within a week of launching, Berman had 40,000 people sign up to march on the Capitol. The March for Science Facebook group now has more than 800,000 members.

At the very least, the march could accomplish a basic, but powerful, goal: “Protest is also an opportunity to create what we call ‘collective identity,’” Dana R. Fisher, a sociologist who studies protest movements, says. “It’s about getting sympathizers, people who agree with the cause, to be activists.”

People who show up to the march may go on to further action. They’ll be more ready to mobilize for when or if the administration truly does lash out against the nation’s scientists. The group 314 Action, a political action committee devoted to getting more PhD holders to run for office, plans to be a presence at the march, to find people sympathetic to its cause. “We see this as an opportunity to increase our network of pro-science advocates,” Ted Bordelon, a 314 Action spokesperson, says.

The nonprofit Earth Day Network is on board too as the lead organizing collaborator. It plans to hold a series of “teach-ins” on the Mall and at the satellite marches to help direct the demonstrators’ energy into action.

The case against a March for Science

Natsmith1 / Shutterstock

Scientists are often typecast as liberals, but scientific institutions can be very conservative when it comes to preserving their own status quo. And the status quo has been to stay out of the political fray.

Take what happened to one of the key players who uncovered the toxic lead poisoning in Flint’s water supply. Environmental engineering professor Marc Edwards took it upon himself to advocate on behalf of the citizens of Flint. As Retraction Watch’s Ivan Oransky points out, Edwards was not seen as a hero in scientific communities.

The editor of Environmental Science & Technology, a prominent research journal, lumped Edwards together with other researchers who had crossed the “invisible line” that separates scientists from activists. “[Scientific] community members have legitimate concerns about the implications of environmental activism in the research world because it undermines the standing of academics as objective seekers of truth,” David Sedlak, the editor-in-chief of Environmental Science & Technology, wrote.

Sedlak explained that scientists who become activists are the product of “a culture where idealism, personal responsibility, and Hollywood’s dramatic sensibilities conspire to create a narrative about the noble individual fighting injustice.” Disapproving, for sure. (Then again, who is better equipped to speak out on the problems of lead poisoning that the person who collected the damning data?)

Dietram Scheufele, a professor who studies science communication at the University of Wisconsin, says the concern is not unfounded. If the public gets the impression that scientists are liberal crusaders, it will be a hard mental image to break. “My mind as a social scientist tells me that [the march] won’t work, but my heart tells me hopefully it will,” he says.

Scheufele foresees a problem that the march organizers can’t avoid: what messages the marchers bring with them. If marchers show up wearing “I’m With Her” T-shirts, or if large numbers come with signs advocating for abortion rights, for instance, conservatives who read news coverage about the march may be more inclined to dismiss it.

It won’t matter if there truly is a diversity of views on display during the march. All it takes is one photo to solidify an impression.

The Women’s March, worked, in part, because the women’s rights issues at the center of the demonstrations were also a good umbrella for a host of progressive issues — like immigration, LGBTQ rights, and the environment. All of those messages reinforce one another. Will the groups that come out for the Science March similarly reinforce one another, and reinforce the idea that science should be taken seriously at all levels of government?

“The message is going to be at best watered down, and at worst mixed up with other political messages, and at that point, it affects the whole scientific community,” Scheufele says.

And he isn’t the only one who has concerns.

“A scientists’ march on Washington is a bad idea,” Robert Young, a geologist, writes, headlining a much-discussed New York Times op-ed.

“A march by scientists,” he continues, “while well intentioned, will serve only to trivialize and politicize the science we care so much about, turn scientists into another group caught up in the culture wars and further drive the wedge between scientists and a certain segment of the American electorate.”

Already, people interested in the march are knitting “brain caps” and “think caps,” a not-so-subtle nod to the “pussy hats” on display at the Women’s March.

The march organizers hear these concerns. And they admit they weren’t as careful as they could have been in the early crafting of their messaging. An early version of their website, and a tweet sent out from the official March for Science account, borrowed heavily from language most commonly associated with identity politics. (The diversity language on the March for Science website has since been toned down.)

On Twitter, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker said such language “compromises” the goals of the march, a comment that read offensive to scientists who feel that diversity issues too often get ignored in science. “You’re saying that me just existing is a partisan issue?” says Danielle Lee, an African-American biologist at Southern Illinois University who writes about diversity issues in science, and took issue with Pinker’s statement (along with others who echoed similar comments).

All this goes to show that “scientists” as a group aren’t just going to show up to the National Mall because they share the same profession. The march organizers need them all to feel like they are on the same team.

“All of these issues of inclusion are a part of our core values,” Berman says. “But it is not going to be a march about identity.”’

For now, the nation’s leading scientific societies are approving of the sentiment of the march, but still wary about contributing. For these institutions, which pride themselves on nonpartisan advocacy, it could be an awkward fit. Groups like the American Chemical Society, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science are still considering how or if their organizations should contribute to the march. These organizations advocate for federal research funding for their scientist members, and thus have a strong incentive to be nonpartisan.

“You need to separate what an individual citizen scientist should feel free to speak up about compared to the role of scientific societies,” Christine McEntee, CEO of the American Geophysical Union, says. “Scientific societies need to be talking about the science and not necessarily saying, ‘And here’s what you should do about this particular issue.’”

She encourages her members to get involved in politics. But her group is weighing whether to further endorse the movement.

Same goes for the American Chemical Society. “[The march] holds a lot of promise,” Glenn Ruskin, director of external affairs at the ACS, says. “If we can shine a light on science’s critical role in making our country and the world a better place, all the better.”

What he’s worried about is the marchers becoming undisciplined in their messaging. Because they are scientists, their protest message must be extra careful to stick to the facts.

“As scientists, you might see a lot of noise [in your data], you might see a lot of confusion, and what you try to do is sort through that,” he says. “And that’s what we need to adhere to. Don’t go off on the rumors.”

For instance, while there are fears that scientific research at the federal agencies could be censored by the new administration, that hasn’t yet come to pass. And so protesters would be wise to not accuse the Trump administration of something it hasn’t yet done. If the marchers are protesting Trump’s tenuous relationship with the truth, they need to be champions of truth themselves, he says.

The public and scientists often don’t agree on the policy issues that matter

Top Vector Studio / Shutterstock

Scheufele brings up another important point. If the goal of the Science March is to remind the nation that science is the top tool we have for discovering truth and providing for a better future, the demonstrators will have to do more than march on the National Mall. They’ll need to do more than get the attention of members of Congress or even the president.

They’ll have to remind ordinary Americans — and especially Americans in red states — that science matters.

In 2015, the Pew Research Center compared public opinion on science issues with a poll of American Association for the Advancement of Science members. They found while the public still has a largely positive outlook of scientific institutions, there’s a gulf between what scientists believe about scientific topics crucial for policy and what the public believes. Regardless of how the public feels about scientists, their messages aren’t getting through.

Also consider the fact that most people can’t name a living scientist. That’s part of the problem. For voters to start putting political pressure on their representatives to embrace research, they’ll need to truly care about it. Scientists typically argue that “you need to believe in science for the sake of science,” Scheufele says. “That’s a philosophically extremely strong argument, and it’s politically an extremely weak argument.”

What science needs, he says, is not necessarily a march but a marketing campaign. Voters need to be convinced that support of the sciences fuels the economic engine of the United States and secures our position in the world, he says. “Those are the things that resonate with a voter who lives in Alabama and has never voted for a Democrat in their life,” he says.

Whether it’s a campaign or a march or another form of organizing, it’s clear that scientists are exploring new forms of actions. Right now there’s a lot of energy, emotion, and mobilization. We’ll have to wait and see what kind of impact they’ll have.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.