Thousands of people are expected to swarm the nation’s capital this weekend to take part in the March for Science — likely to be one of the largest pro-science demonstrations ever, with the express purpose of defending the “vital role science plays” in government. But how many will attend the event to actually promote science? And how many will arrive hoping to join an anti-Trump rally?
On the surface, the distinction might not seem all that important. This is D.C., after all, and there have been plenty of demonstrations against the Trump administration. What difference would one more march make?
But the March for Science may be the largest political event that the scientific community has ever mustered, with an estimated 150,000 people expected to show up. With the wrong messaging, this could further entrench the public’s polarized view of academia.
Organizers say that the event is nonpartisan and that it’s meant to advocate “evidence-based policymaking, science education, research funding and inclusive and accessible science.” Of course, each of those goals is desirable — which is why it’s become a global phenomenon and attracted support from some of the world’s most prominent scientific organizations.
But we can’t dissociate the event from political reality. The march was inspired by the national women’s march after President Trump’s inauguration and has been criticized for politicizing science and appearing too leftist. The event is even going to feature pink knitted brain hats, strongly alluding to the pink hats worn by protesters during the women’s march. If the March for Science is not a response to Trump’s election and policies, the large-scale interest from participants definitely is.
Of course, scientists have legitimate qualms about the administration. Environmental scientists remain outraged over Trump’s ambivalence toward (and at times outright denial of) climate change. Trump didn’t help his cause when he nominated Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency — despite Pruitt’s climate-change denialism. Meanwhile, Trump ignited a firestorm from doctors and biologists after meeting with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has questioned the safety of vaccines.
It also doesn’t help that the Trump administration purged references to climate change from agency websites, failed to appoint a scientific adviser in the White House, and proposed cutting federal funds for scientific policy centers such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Geological Survey.
Considering the tense relationship between Trump and the scientific community, the effort to play down the political tenor of the march is laughable. Yet scientists remain starkly divided on whether they should partake in the event.
Of course, academics are justified in speaking out when administrations blatantly ignore the heft of scientific evidence in a way that harms the general public (think climate change and questioning the safety of vaccines). But it’s quite another thing to advocate specific policy proposals that require weighing arguments on multiples sides of a debate while also grappling with the increasingly polarized atmosphere in our political system. And it’s yet another thing to engage in political spats against the president of the United States.
The fear is that the event will come off with an overtly partisan tone. No doubt, much of science is undeniably political. But adopting an anti-administration tenor could do real damage to the credibility of scientific research (at least for the conservative half the country). This isn’t just a hypothetical concern — research shows that people believe scientists lose credibility when they engage in advocacy.
Perhaps that shouldn’t be too much of a concern. We’ve already politicized science to the point that party identification determines our beliefs toward science-related issues. Still, it’s worth pausing and considering what impact this march could have on the general public. When scientists start dabbling in political demonstrations, they put themselves at risk of being labeled as ideologically motivated. It also de-legitimizes their voice when politicians actually do seriously disregard scientific evidence.
The role of science in politics is rarely ever cut and dried. It’s more like pick your battles. No doubt, many participants will show up at the march with an understanding of what’s at stake politically and attempt to strike a nonpartisan tone.
But given the heated commentary that we’ve seen so far, it’s unlikely that will remain the primary narrative. Conservatives will inevitably view it as academics painting themselves a darker shade of blue. And liberals will see it as a rally against a president they strongly dislike.
For the sake of science, that’s a shame.