The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The March for Science could break stubborn stereotypes about scientists

Beka Economopoulos attends a rally for science in Boston in February at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. (Chris Mooney/The Washington Post)

On April 22, Earth Day, people around the world will take part in the March for Science. It is intended to be “a call to support and safeguard the scientific community,” according to its website. While aimed in part at politicians who are hostile to scientific findings, the march may also act as a much-needed professional recruiting tool.

To many young people, science seems like a solitary and humorless pursuit dominated by white men. Might the march change some young people’s minds, perhaps by showing them that scientists are a diverse and passionate group of people who sometimes escape the laboratory? Psychologists see potential.

“I would expect that perceptions of both scientists and the nature of science might shift, at least temporarily,” said Amanda Diekman, a psychologist at Miami University in Ohio who studies stereotyping. “The very basic image of scientists engaging as a collective might be a powerful form of counter-arguing the stereotype of the individual scientist laboring away in the lab.”

Within science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, the Census Bureau reports that women, blacks and Hispanics remain underrepresented. Discrimination helps explain the shortage, but Diekman has found that stereotypes about STEM might also play a role. Women in one of her studies were more likely to care about communal values than men were, and both men and women with higher communal goals such as working on a team and serving the community were less interested in STEM careers. Working with and helping others is also especially important to underrepresented minorities in STEM, according to research by Jessi Smith, a psychologist at Montana State University who studies diversity in science and engineering.

In reality, science offers many communal opportunities. “The basic nature of science is about collaboration, about working in a lab or working in a team,” Diekman said. And while a lot of research doesn’t have obvious immediate applications, in the long run it may lead to better medicines or safer cars or other things that fulfill someone’s desire for a career that benefits humanity. “The NIH and the NSF — unfortunately — aren’t going to spend our tax dollars just to pay people to think for the fun of thinking,” Smith said, referencing the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

Fortunately, perceptions of STEM can be changed, at least in the short term. In studies published in 2011 and 2016, Diekman and colleagues found that when college students read about an entry-level scientist who spent much of the day collaborating with and helping others vs. working alone, they expressed greater interest in a science career. And in research published in 2015, Smith and colleagues described a biomedical research project to college students. When they added that the project was aimed at helping infants and wounded soldiers, students showed more interest in pursuing similar research themselves.

“The more that people see scientists as engaged people within the community, the more likely future students — both men and women from all kinds of backgrounds — will feel like science is for them,” Smith said. And the March for Science shows such engagement. “The march might do more than send a political message to the nation,” Smith said. “It might indeed chip away at this stereotypical image of a lone wolf going it alone in their lab at all hours of the night focused only on the next discovery, oblivious to what is happening around them.”

(The March for Science has been criticized for lacking diversity, and some organizers have quit over the issue. “Diversity inclusion makes for better science,” Smith said, “just like this controversy will make for a better march.”)

That stereotypical image damages not only science recruitment but also the way the general public feels about science. A study published last year revealed what Americans thought about scientists’ concern for others. Although participants saw scientists as more trustworthy than “regular” people, they also saw them as more robot-like, more concerned with pursuing knowledge at the expense of others’ well-being, and more potentially dangerous. Scientists were seen not as immoral, but amoral — immune to what’s outside the field of their microscopes.

Preliminary data presented at the most recent annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology from another team draws out the implications. The more that scientists are seen as asocial — “peculiar” and work-focused — the less confidence people have in the scientific community.

When people lose confidence in science, and even fear scientists, they may not support further research. “Something like this march could have bigger, broader consequences, if people are tuned in,” Smith said. Observers might vote to support research projects or pro-science candidates, she said. According to Diekman, “There are people like myself who are watching how my elected officials are engaging or not engaging with science and letting them know that I think policy that is informed by high-quality evidence — about human behavior, or educational interventions or the environment — is going to have a better chance of succeeding.”

Thus the need to show scientists as real people. In a 2017 poll of 1,000 Americans by Research!America, 81 percent could not name a living scientist. Seeing a few or a few thousand in the flesh could replace in their minds the generic placeholder in the lab coat. “We’re collecting data about perceptions of the goals of science before and after the March,” Diekman said, “so we can understand whether perceptions change, how this relates to involvement with the march, and how this relates to broader beliefs about the role of science in public policy.”

“One of our goals is to humanize science,” said Jonathan Berman, a biologist and co-chair of the March for Science. “I hope that young people look at the many faces and voices and stories that make up the March for Science and feel hopeful because they know that this is a community they already belong to, and that science serves everyone.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson, the most-named American scientist in the Research!America poll, has another take on humanizing science. “This is already happening,” he said, “via forces much more potent than anything a march on Washington can create.” He cites fictional and nonfictional Hollywood fare such as “CSI,” “MythBusters,” “The Martian” and “Hidden Figures.” “They all show scientists as fully fleshed-out characters, something rare in entertainment until recent decades.”

The smartphone may be one of the best recruiters of young people, Tyson adds. “They know that the smartphone exploits all manner of STEM advancements, especially the Internet itself.” Eventually they will grow up to lead companies and governments. “The rise of the next generation gives me hope for the future of the world.”

Matthew Hutson is a science writer and the author of “The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking.”