The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tens of thousands marched for science. Now what?

(Jia Naqvi/The Washington Post)

Just hours after the Washington March for Science dispersed, organizers sent an email to demonstrators with the subject line, “What's next?”

“Our movement is just starting,” the message read. It went on to urge marchers to take part in a “week of action,” a set of coordinated activities that range from signing an environmental voting pledge to participating in a citizen science project. They will provide postcards for participants to send to their political leaders and a calendar of events recommended by the march's partner groups.

The march website was also overhauled Saturday night to include a new page on the organization's vision for the future. The details are not fully fleshed out (and the page still included a few typos Sunday afternoon), but organizers say they aim to build a new science advocacy network and establish programs to better engage the public with science.

“We intend to symbolically keep marching,” said national co-chair Valerie Aquino. “I would love for the March for Science to continue growing into a global movement.”

That goal will require a sea change in how scientists think about outreach. But after the success of the march, which turned out tens of thousands of demonstrators in more than 600 cities, organizers think it could happen.

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This public engagement is unprecedented for the scientific community. Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, noted before the march that his colleagues tend to be wary about advocacy. Some worry that such efforts might make their research appear less objective; many simply haven't seen it as their job to make sure their work is available and understood outside of academic circles.

But in the wake of President Trump's election, and in the face of policy changes and proposed budget cuts that threatened several areas of research, the community is galvanized.

“The level of anxiety about the state of science, its place in our society and government, and whether the conditions under which science can thrive are being maintained and defended … anxiety about that has led people to go into the public square,” Holt told reporters.

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Organizers insisted that the March for Science was political, but not partisan. Their stated goal was not to condemn the Trump administration — though there were plenty of jabs at the president during the day's events — but to emphasize the importance of science in society.

Aquino, an anthropologist who has had projects canceled because of a lack of public funding, said scientists don't always take responsibility for making the case for their work. But she thinks the march might signal a change in that perspective.

“I really hope that there is a fundamental shift in the zeitgeist of the scientific community from 'my job is done when I produce the data and I'm going to leave it at someone else's doorstep,' to 'Science isn’t finished until you communicate it, and not just in a journal that most people don't have access to,'" she said.

Brenda Ekwurzel, the director of climate science at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that she's been trying to convey this message for years. Working in climate research, it was clear to her that scientists needed to be better at outreach if they were ever going to convince the public to take steps against climate change, she said — that's why she left academia for advocacy in 2005. But most of her colleagues didn't follow suit; “They thought the data would speak for itself.”

On Saturday, taking in the thousands of sodden marchers chanting “Ho ho, hey hey, I support the EPA,” Ekwurzel said “I cannot believe I am surrounded by so many scientists.”

“I'm surprised at how energized they are. That means to me they really see there's a threat.”

Fellow marcher Aileen Frayna, who works for a genetic diagnostics company in Germantown, Md., showed up dressed in a Ms. Frizzle costume she made herself. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been to a protest, let alone one this big.

“I was previously very passive,” Frayna said. She would sometimes fail to vote in local elections; she hasn't been involved in science outreach efforts.

But events since the election have been “a smack in the face.” The geneticist is now looking into political groups like 314 Action, which aims to get more scientists elected to public office. Frayna doesn't think she's cut out for a political career, but she said she might try to volunteer. She's also interested in efforts to increase representation of women and minorities in STEM; as a Filipina woman, she feels it's especially important to represent her community.

“After November, I know I need to participate in things like this,” Frayna said. “I can't just sit idly by.”

Read more:

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