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Scientists have shown they can march. Can they help win elections?

Four questions for the newly energized science movement against Trump.

Climate Marches Take Place Across Country
People march from the U.S. Capitol to the White House for the People's Climate Movement to protest President Donald Trump's enviromental policies.
Photo by Astrid Riecken/Getty Images

For the past two weekends, the National Mall has been packed with people protesting President Trump in the name of science and the environment.

In an impressive show of force, both the March for Science and the People’s Climate March mobilized tens of thousands of veteran activists and first-time demonstrators, like the 87-year-old atomic physicist I met on the soggy grounds of the Washington Monument.

Both scenes made for arresting visuals of Americans waving elaborate signs and chanting at Congress and the White House. (Check out aerial footage and 10 of the best signs from Saturday here.) But they were also very different — in ways that matter for their momentum going forward.

The March for Science on Earth Day was a deliberately nonpartisan event where speakers tiptoed around mentioning Trump’s name. (Event co-host Questlove pointed toward the White House at one point, calling out “that guy over there.”) It was a march for science. Not against Trump. The idea for the march started on a Reddit thread the day after Trump’s inauguration; it’s a bit of miracle that organizers pulled it off.

The People’s Climate March, on the other hand, has been an annual event since 2014; this year, it featured people of color on the front lines of climate change. Organizers said the Trump administration’s aggressive moves so far on climate policy — and outright climate denialism — made for the biggest, and most confrontational, march yet. At the March for Science, the Muppet Beaker was a mascot. At the climate march, it was unflattering Trump effigies and the word “RESIST” in all caps.

There’s a story to be told about both of these marches: They align grassroots uprising from science-minded folks who want the government to value evidence in its decision-making. They want to hold politicians accountable to facts. “This is at a whole new level — what [Trump] has awakened in America,” Aaron Mair, the national president of the Sierra Club, said at the People’s Climate March.

But here’s something that’s harder to parse: what comes next.

These past two weekends have shown that the “science resistance” — for lack of a better term — has been mobilized. They’re energized. They’re seeking outlets for their frustrations. But it’s unclear how they will come to effect change. There are a few open questions to explore.

How will all this figure into elections?

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

In the past, there have been values voters and working-class voters and environmental voters, but “science voters” has yet to be a constituency. The March for Science got 40,000 requests to volunteer within a week of its founding — a sign that there’s a groundswell of people who want to make change, somehow.

But at least when it comes to the March for Science, that change isn’t full-bore political.

“The whole point of March for Science is that science isn’t partisan,” said Valorie Aquino, one of its co-chairs, a few days after the event. Moving forward, Aquino says the group wants to keep march-goers civically engaged — making sure they register to vote, encouraging them to take an interest in local politics, and so on. But “as far as getting behind getting specific candidates? I’m not certain about that,” Aquino says.

A week before the march, Rush Holt, the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said focusing on elections now is putting “the cart before the horse,” and that now is the time to build energy, enthusiasm, and identity.

What the March for Science has built is an accomplishment for its short existence. It has a huge social media platform and a network of partner organizations, like scientific societies such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, and others. Aquino says there’s a two-pronged approach for how to use that to effect change: one, encourage scientists to be more vocal about their work. And two, get science communities to get more civically engaged.

That’s all great. But as elections come, there may be an incentive to be more overtly political. At the climate march, I spotted Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island. And I asked for his take on what action all this groundswell of activism should be put toward.

“To be blindingly obvious, start targeting the 2018 elections,” he said. “Nothing will turn this city around faster than a Democrat speaker of the House and Democrat chairman of committees. … You get a Democrat speaker, and everything in Washington changes.”

Also obvious: A Democratic senator is of course going to want fresh recruits to win a Democratic congressional majority. But he has a point: The future of science policy in America came into question immediately with Trump’s election. A new election could change the course.

At the Atlantic, climate writer Rob Meyer concurs. “I suspect that in the longterm, it’s the confidently political — confidently partisan — climate marchers who will have the right approach,” he writes. Here, it’s instructive to think about the Tea Party, which quickly turned into a partisan electoral force that’s stillvia its offshoot the Freedom Caucus — a powerful constituency in Congress. Remember Occupy Wall Street? They put on a big show but never really turned it into a movement.

Will scientists become more comfortable with activism?

Brian Resnick / Vox

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.

“There’s still this unease about participating in public life that seems to be unique to the science community,” says Michael Halpern, the deputy director for the Center for Science and Democracy.

Take what happened to one of the key players who uncovered the toxic lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan’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.

Perhaps more scientists will be emboldened to cross this “invisible line.” The net effect of these events may be that scientists will not be as timid stepping into the political fray in the future.

Because right now, scientists don’t have a ton of incentives to engage in activism. “Besides doing research and publishing, my Ph.D. requirements involve taking science classes, teaching, and attending a departmental field trip,” Ploy Achakulwisut, a climate scientist and activist writes in Scientific American. “The first time I heard a senior scientist suggest we all commit some of our time to public and political engagement was two weeks ago.”

Scientists want to run for office. Could they win?

Climate Marches Take Place Across Country Photo by Astrid Riecken/Getty Images

A few days before the March for Science, I attended a workshop put on by 314 Action, a political action committee devoted to getting more people with science backgrounds to run for public office — from local school boards to Congress.

Most of the 60 or so participants were there, like good scientists, to collect more data before deciding if they really wanted to enter into the political sphere. Some came with extremely basic questions, like: How much does running for office cost?

And they all had different reasons for considering a run.

For Maria Mendoza, 33, a psychologist and AAAS fellow, it was a feeling that she was becoming detached from the rural communities where she was raised. “The last election made me realize that maybe I’m not connected as I thought I was to my community,” she said. “Home now would classify me as an elitist Democrat.” Going back to rural Colorado and running for a local office would be a way to potentially change minds and the culture around trusting East Coast “experts.”

According to Shaughnessy Naughton, a chemist and former congressional candidate who runs 314 (named after pi), many people like Mendoza have been coming out of the woodwork and expressing an interest in running. “In January, there was a massive outpouring of interest in what we were doing,” she says. The group offered an introductory webinar on running for office that Naughton thought might attract 1,000 sign-ups. Three thousand expressed interest.

But can these candidates — coming from an uncommon background for politicians —really make headway, and in deep-red areas like where Mendoza is from?

Joe Trippi, a Democratic campaign consultant, suggests they should take a page out of Trump’s book: Play the role of the outsider. “There’s a hunger for new, fresh thinking,” he said at the 314 event. “And that’s why you [scientists] fit. You represent authentic change … you fit into that narrative of doing things differently.”

Is there enough immediacy to have an impact?

Demonstrators begin the March for Science.
Brian Resnick / Vox

The March for Science’s nonpartisan stance may have been a good way for people in this community to get their foot in the activist door, says Halpern. But there may not be time to just keep testing the waters. Trump and the Republican Congress may make long-lasting changes to science policy very soon. If the science resistance is too cautious, it may be too late.

Congress appears to be offering some support to the scientific community. Their latest spending measure rebuffs Trump’s request to cut funding at the National Institutes of Health and adds significantly to the NASA budget. But near-term dangers lurk, like a final draft of Trump’s 2018 budget proposal, which could include the same dramatic cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency in the blueprint — not to mention the Trump administration’s rollback of Obama-era climate policy that’s already underway. By the time the science community is mobilized and fully in the fight, these changes may be hard to reverse.

“History teaches us that often the most successful movements are those that balance the fast and the slow,” Geoffrey Supran, who studies the history of science at Harvard, says in an email. “The marches provide the fast: flash points that create swells of urgency, moments that brings people together and create a sense of unity and shared values. … This gives us the energy we need to go back to our communities to do the slow: the hard-grind organizing that's needed to hold our leaders to account locally and nationally.”

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