The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The ‘March for Science’ is gaining mainstream momentum

Rush Holt, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, testified before the House Science Committee on Capitol Hill on Feb. 7. He rebuffed claims by Republican members that federal climate science had been falsified. (Michael Biesecker/AP)

Many scientists are reluctant to leap into politically charged territory, but these are not normal times, and even the most mainstream science organizations say there may be no choice but to take to the streets. The much-discussed “March for Science,” organized via social media and scheduled for April 22 in Washington, has been gaining momentum.

Christine McEntee, executive director and chief executive of the American Geophysical Union, said Thursday that her organization has been talking in recent days with march organizers and looking for ways to support the effort.

“We are pleased to see the growing support for the value of science and scientific integrity. AGU has begun discussions with the organizers of the march and we are exploring how we can best support their efforts. Democracy is based on active participation. We fully support the efforts of scientists to speak out on these important issues,” she told The Washington Post.

Also on Thursday, Rush Holt, a physicist and the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, published an editorial in the journal Science that urged researchers to leave the comfort of their laboratories and institutions and get involved in the political fray.

Although Holt, a former Democratic congressman from New Jersey, did not explicitly endorse the march, his editorial — headlined “Act for science" -- is the latest sign that even relatively stodgy organizations that make up the scientific establishment are lining up behind the April 22 effort, which in addition to the Washington march will include satellite marches around the country and the world.

Scientists plan to march on Washington -- but where will it get them?

“I think we have to be more forceful in our defense of science,” Holt told The Washington Post this week in an interview in the association's downtown Washington headquarters. Asked whether he was giving scientists a green light to join protests, he said, “It's not up to me to give the green light on anything. Scientists are and should be fiercely independent in their defense of science.”

Holt said that roughly a dozen individuals who had planned to go to Boston next week for the AAAS annual convention are not going now because of President Trump's executive order limiting immigration from seven countries. A Sudanese scientist was supposed to attend to receive an award for her work helping women in the developing world, but she has canceled her trip, he said. Sudan is among the countries named in Trump's executive order.

In Holt's editorial, he cites several other areas of concern for scientists, including “policy-making that is based on ideological assertion rather than on verifiable evidence.” He acknowledges that many scientists are loath to do anything that would politicize their research or jeopardize their funding. But he argues that these are excuses for inaction. Holt writes:

Scientists should not fool themselves with the misconception that politics is dirty compared to the scientific enterprise, and they should therefore avoid the fight. Nor should scientists think that by standing back and letting the facts speak for themselves, they allow reason to prevail and proponents of flawed policies to wilt.

Holt wrote the editorial in the wake of a much-discussed Jan. 31 New York Times op-ed by coastal ecologist Robert S. Young, who argued that a science march was a bad idea because it would be seen as political rather than a defense of science. The Atlantic has also found a handful of scientists who think the march is misguided. But hundreds of thousands of science supporters have signed up to volunteer or participate in the marches.

Further Reading:

The nation's top scientists can't get through to Trump — and they're alarmed

Fake news and creeping surrealism

Why science is so hard to believe