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The pediatrician who exposed lead in Flint, Mich., water will march for science

Mona Hanna-Attisha at her office in the Hurley Children's Center in Flint on Jan. 15, 2016. (Brittany Greeson for The Washington Post)

On Saturday, Mona Hanna-Attisha, the Michigan pediatrician who sounded the alarm on lead in Flint’s drinking water, will march on the Capitol. Many thousands of people — other scientists, yes, but droves of science supporters and enthusiasts, as well — are expected to join her.

“How could you not march for science?” said Hanna-Attisha, who was invited to be an honorary co-chair of the March for Science. “How could you say no to anything with Bill Nye?” Before the marching begins, Hanna-Attisha will speak at the base of the Washington Monument. (The Science Guy, too, is slated to give a brief talk.)

Her experience as a doctor in Flint paved the way for her science advocacy, Hanna-Attisha said. “Pediatricians care for a population that can’t speak, can’t vote,” she said, noting that physicians take an oath to protect patients from harm. “It is your role to be an advocate.”

The Hurley Medical Center, where Hanna-Attisha directs the pediatric residency program, released a report in September 2015 detailing how lead was unusually prevalent in the bloodstreams of local children. In December, Flint's mayor declared a state of emergency. Then-President Barack Obama followed suit in January, directing federal aid to clean up the area's contaminated water supply.

“I could have stayed in my clinic. I took a risk, I stepped out of my exam room,” Hanna-Attisha said. “It’s scary. It’s not what I was used to. I was attacked.” In the months that followed the lead report, some Michigan politicians dismissed the danger of Flint water as a hoax, as The Washington Post reported.

Hanna-Attisha said that she recognized how discomfiting it seems to leave the safety of a lab, university or hospital. Yet, she said, scientists do not always grasp the power and credibility of their voices. “Science speaks truth to power,” she said. “Science is not an alternative fact.”

The March for Science will attempt to walk a careful line — to demonstrate that science is political without inflaming tensions between liberals and conservatives. (“I have no problem with vitriol,” as Michael Specter wrote in the New Yorker in early April. “But there is a genuine risk that the March for Science will be widely regarded as a manifestation of the great urban-rural divide that helped elect Trump.")

“To me, this is not a partisan event,” Hanna-Attisha said. The March for Science's literature echoes that refrain. Per its website: “We will not let our movement be defined by any one politician or party.”

It would be “mind-boggling,” the pediatrician put it, “that only one party could or would believe in science.” Science, she said, means that children have antibiotics and cancer patients have chemotherapy.

The breadth of the professional organizations supporting March for Science, she said, was also a testament to the march's big-tent approach. Partners include the American Geophysical Union, the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists and dozens of other specialist organizations. “These are not groups like Greenpeace. These are hardcore bench scientists.”

But rallies, even ones that encourage participants to proclaim their love for fish biology, are not spawned in a political vacuum. “I think the current political climate has put fire in people’s pants,” she said, while noting that the climate “is full of partisanship.” Hanna-Attisha also pointed to the current administration's proposed budget, which shrinks funds to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as scientific programs.

Attacks on science go beyond budgets, she said, such as the rejection of science by the anti-vaccine movement or climate change denial. “If all those threats weren’t happening, we probably wouldn’t be having a March for Science.”

Part of the solution is to elect more scientists into capitols and congressional buildings, Hanna-Attisha said. Some researchers are trying to make their way there; volcanologist Jess Phoenix, for instance, recently declared her candidacy for California’s 25th Congressional District.

“We traditionally don’t see scientists in the public arena,” Hanna-Attisha said. “Scientists need to get into the streets and halls of government. We need you, the world needs you, our communities need you.”

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