As soon as he heard about the March for Science, James Casey Lippmeier knew he wanted to participate. But he was uneasy about how his employer — and others — might react.
He needn’t have worried. It turned out DSM, the global life and materials sciences giant where Lippmeier is a principal scientist, was wholeheartedly endorsing the event. The company even created T-shirts for the hundreds of employees who marched, including North American president Hugh Welsh, who flew to Washington to participate.
“There has been a widespread attack on science, which of course we find very unsettling,” Welsh said, adding that the company’s participation was not politically motivated. “As soon as I heard they were going to have a March for Science, I said, ‘In some way, shape or form, we as a company have to get engaged.’ ”
Around the world, corporate executives and their employees were among the thousands who marched April 22 to support science in an unprecedented political act that many say was aimed at the anti-science policies championed by the Trump administration.
Among other things, President Trump has called climate change a hoax, spoken out against vaccines and proposed sweeping budget cuts to the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency. Nearly all 46 key science and technology posts in the Trump administration remain unfilled.
Executives at Aveda, the hair and skin care company owned by Estée Lauder, were among the first to pledge their support for the march. Its employees, the company said in a blog post, would “walk out of the lab and into the streets,” and encouraged customers to do the same. Aveda’s Pinterest board, meanwhile, offered more than a dozen ideas for protest signs such as “Protect forests,” “Stand up for clean water” and “Good hair days start with science.”
Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer took to social media with its message: “Imagine a world without #science,” it said in a tweet containing six emoji. “This #EarthDay, we’re proud to stand behind our scientists & the #ScienceMarch.”
These public displays of support for the March for Science — billed by organizers as a nonpolitical event — became a way for companies to express their displeasure at the administration without coming across as overtly political, said Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the Wharton School.
“If you think about it, supporting science is not the most radical idea in the world,” Cappelli said. “You combine that with the fact that these companies have a huge stake in government funding of the sciences, and it becomes an obvious move.”
The march’s branding also helped win over corporate support, he said. Organizers — who included an anthropologist, physiologist and public health researcher — insisted it was a nonpartisan affair, even as its website warned that “an American government that ignores science to pursue ideological agendas endangers the world.” Plus, Cappelli said, they held the event on Earth Day — and, well, “who’s going to say, ‘I don’t like our planet?’ ” (The People’s Climate March on Saturday, by comparison, attracted significantly less corporate support.)
“If this had been pitched as an anti-global-warming march, it would have been a totally different story,” Cappelli added. “But marching for science? That didn’t really force any companies into a difficult position.”
But it did put many out of their comfort zone. Pharmaceutical and biotech companies, for example, depend on government agencies for regulatory approval and oversight. Countless other science-related interest groups and associations spend millions of dollars lobbying Congress.
“This is an industry that tries to stay as neutral as possible,” said Brian Skorney, an analyst for Baird. “There is concern you don’t want to overstep your bounds and anger the powers that be.”
At the American Society of Plant Biologists, chief executive Crispin Taylor said he was hesitant to get involved. The Rockville, Md.-based association spends $120,000 a year lobbying lawmakers on behalf of its 3,500 members.
“As an advocacy organization, we did not want to jeopardize our standing by doing something overtly political,” Taylor said.
But eventually he changed his mind. He was reassured, he said, when other companies and associations began announcing their support. Taylor assembled a group of about 150 members, 30 of them in Washington, for the march. They wore matching T-shirts and held signs that said “Science is real” and “Ask for evidence!”
“The truth is, we recognized that we as scientists need to do a better job of standing up for ourselves,” Taylor said. “And we liked the positive messaging: It was a march for science, not a march against anyone or anything.”
Welsh, of DSM, says the current “attack on science” dates back years. When he was growing up, scientists were revered. They put a man on the moon and were the inspiration for superheroes such as Iron Man.
“But somewhere along the way, the narrative changed and scientists began to be portrayed as the enemy, as folks who couldn’t be trusted,” he said. “It’s hard to not be distracted by politics, but this is not about Democrats or Republicans. It’s about facts. It’s about evidence.”
On the day of the march, Welsh wore a company T-shirt and carried an umbrella. Fifteen area employees and their families marched alongside him as they walked along Constitution Avenue. (Hundreds of others took part in sister marches around the world.)
“Look, if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it visibly and loudly,” Welsh said. Around him, other marchers held signs that said “Fund research,” “Save NIH” and “There is no Planet B.” The crowd chanted: “Science makes America great. Science, not hate.”
Six hours in, Welsh was soaked from the rain. “Drenched to the bone,” he said, “but nothing but smiles.”
“Hopefully,” he added, “this is the beginning of the end of this unfortunate anti-science campaign. All we’re saying is: Let’s be fact-based; let’s be evidence-based. That’s what we do in business. Why shouldn’t we do the same in life?”