March for Science: Why scientists say this isn't a political protest

Many researchers have raised alarms about how science will be treated in the new administration's policy decisions. Thousands have embraced the March for Science as a wake-up call, but others say a different approach is most constructive.

Sait Serkan Gurbuz/AP/File
Demonstrators attend the Women's March on Washington near the White House on Saturday, Jan. 21. The March for Science, scheduled for April 22 (Earth Day) has been compared to the Women's March, but organizers hope to prevent the event from becoming partisan.

As Donald Trump has gone from the campaign trail to the White House, one constant has been scientists’ concerns about prospective Trump White House science policies, on matters from rising sea levels to green energy. Numerous efforts to articulate the value of impartial science are underway – and one, the March for Science, already has hundreds of thousands of supporters.

On Wednesday, the group behind the March for Science announced that the march will take place on Earth Day (April 22). Born on social media, the movement has rapidly gained traction with Americans concerned about the Trump administration’s support for “alternative facts” and nomination of climate change skeptics to key Cabinet posts.

Nationwide, most scientists share at least two similar goals: to preserve independent research, and see objective evidence brought into policy decisions. But the march itself is considered more contentious. Organizers say they hope to send Washington a message about the value of scientific evidence, and experts suggest that their protest may influence politicians going forward. But others advocate a more personal approach, cautioning that the protest could alienate the very Americans that scientists most need to reach.

“We need to show the rest of the world that we are real people, especially scientists that study things that can be controversial,” says Robert S. Young, a professor of coastal geology at West Carolina University, in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. “It’s really easy to demonize people you don’t know.”

Organizers of the march seem to be aware of those concerns. Coming on the heels of the Women’s March on Washington, which began as a movement to empower women but became a more general nexus for opposition to President Trump and his policies, some March for Science organizers have made it clear that their effort is intended to be nonpartisan.

“Yes, this is a protest, but it’s not a political protest,” Jonathan Berman, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and a lead organizer of the march, told The New York Times.

Instead, he said, the protesters have a universal message for politicians in Washington: “You should listen to evidence.”

The marchers "do not want this march to be a critique of the Trump administration," Dana R. Fisher, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland who focuses on environmentalism, tells the Monitor.

But with the decline of trust in traditional institutions, which seems to include science itself, support for facts has seemingly become a partisan issue. When Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to Mr. Trump, made headlines for talking about "alternative facts" about the size of Trump's Inauguration crowd, the phrase became critics' catchphrase to sum up what they consider the new White House's disregard for objective truth and fact-checking.

"Facts matter" has become a rallying cry, an idea that should stand free of partisan opinions, protestors say. But the belief that science should be free from political interference is "a political position more broadly," adds Professor Fisher, who directs UMD's Program for Society and the Environment – though it may be a statement that crosses party lines.

“There are many conservatives in the United States that believe science should be free of political pressure,” she says. 

Science's ability to cross party lines, appealing to shared concerns, gives these marchers a united voice that can help them influence politicians, explains Daniel Gillion, an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “The Political Power of Protest.”

Politicians, he says, are “gauging the landscape,” trying to understand what their constituents want. If there is protest coming from both sides – such as the Women’s March, which was generally pro-choice, and the March for Life, which was generally pro-life, Professor Gillion suggests – “It’s white noise. They wash each other out.”

If, on the other hand, there is a united voice, then politicians often feel compelled to listen, he says.

“When protest makes an issue salient, representatives are more likely to introduce bills, and they’re more likely to vote in favor of those bills,” Gillion says, drawing on his quantitative analysis of protests and their effectiveness.

The impact of protest can reach up to the president, he adds, citing Ronald Reagan’s evolving attitude to apartheid in South Africa, and George H.W. Bush’s response to the Rodney King riots.

Professor Fisher, who carried out fieldwork during the Women’s March, is less optimistic about the influence of protest on the presidency.

“Based on everything we’ve seen of this administration … it will be seen in a very critical light and taken very personally,” she says, mentioning Trump’s tweets about protesters.

What protest can do, she agrees, is draw attention and put pressure on members of Congress.

“Congress is up for reelection in 2018,” Fisher says. “That’s the pressure point.”

Already, however, some scientists are questioning whether they want to speak out on these issues.

"Given the political climate, several of the people who have been instrumental in planning the event are reluctant to announce their participation publicly, and we are respecting their wishes as they make their final decisions," the March's website says, adding that the final organizing team will be announced next week. Organizers did not respond to a request for comment.

Others are uncertain about the value of a march entirely. The challenge facing scientists, they say, is not the Trump administration’s science policy, which has yet to be fully articulated. It’s the mistrust that many Americans feel toward scientists and scientific knowledge.

“The most important thing I’ve learned ... is that facts are not enough,” Katharine Hayhoe, an associate professor of political science at Texas Tech University and co-author of “A Climate for Change,” previously told the Monitor. “We need to connect to people’s hearts.”

A march can’t do that, says Professor Young of Western Carolina University. And the symbolism of the march may even be counterproductive.

“The march is going to be on Earth Day,” he notes. “That blends environmentalism and science, which is … not the best way to break out of the stereotypes that some folks on the right might have of the scientific community.”

And however protesters frame the march, those people are unlikely to hear their message.

"The scientists will not be controlling the message of the march," Young warns. "It will be the signs with the most offensive and political messages that become the internet memes of the climate skeptics and the right wing following this march."

Instead, scientists in this camp want to focus on forging personal connections and gaining the trust of Americans who may be uncertain of the impartiality of science. Young describes it as a “PR campaign” for science, helping ordinary people to identify with scientists – who are, after all, ordinary people themselves.

His wife, he says, suggested a Super Bowl ad in support of science, with “some scientist who loves to hunt, standing there with a shotgun over his shoulder, standing there saying ‘I’m a chemist’, or a climate scientist who’s just got off a dirt bike.”

Federal scientists, who are at the heart of this debate, seem to agree with Young – at least for now. Since publishing a piece arguing against the march in The New York Times on Tuesday, he’s received hundreds of emails, including some from federal scientists. Of those, he says “just two or three of them … thought [the march] was a good idea.”


“They want to avoid drawing fire,” Young summarizes. Having gone through many transitions in the past, “experienced federal scientists are saying there may be a time for targeted outrage about a specific issue, but that time isn’t here yet.”

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