The April 22 march in Washington and more than 600 satellite cities around the world was “pretty unprecedented,” according to historians of science. Galvanized by the Trump administration's moves to cut funding for research and roll back environmental regulations, tens of thousands of researchers, teachers and enthusiasts took to the streets wearing lab coats, carrying clever signs and chanting nerdy slogans.
“There were just so many people who were so passionate . . . there was kind of this sense of 'We cannot possibly be working this hard just for one day,'” said Caroline Weinberg, a public health researcher who was one of the march's lead organizers and who will serve as a director for the new nonprofit. “We all felt that it should be and needed to be something longer.”
In the months since the march, the usually politics-averse scientific community has undergone a piecemeal transformation. Many scientists are quicker to sign petitions or speak out on social media about political issues. Scientific societies are providing more outreach training for members and issuing frequent statements on policies they say harm science and scientists, such as the Trump administration's travel ban, the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement and the dismissal of Environmental Protection Agency scientists. This weekend, the EPA cancelled talks by its scientists at a water conference in Rhode Island.
Several satellite marches have transitioned to become full-time advocacy organizations: The Houston march recently organized relief efforts for labs and schools damaged during Hurricane Harvey; the Indianapolis group helps host a monthly science book club; in New Mexico this month, local groups called on marchers to protest changes to the state science curriculum that would have downplayed climate change and removed references to evolution.
The march was just one flash point in a tumultuous year, and scientists are still struggling to find their political voice, said Christine McEntee, executive director of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), an Earth and space science organization.
“But the march was kind of a galvanizing point,” she added. “I think that scientists are fearful, anxious, concerned and, at the same time, realizing that this is their time to speak up and be very clear about what they can contribute to society.”
The march was inspired by a “throwaway” comment on Reddit and pulled together over the course of three hectic months by a group of mostly 20- and 30-something scientists who had no experience in organizing. The lead organizers devoted as many as 80 hours a week to the effort; none were paid.
It was “chaos,” acknowledged Valorie Aquino, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico who was a co-chair of the national committee. Organizers struggled to counter criticisms from all sides: that the march was too politicized; that they bungled diversity issues; that they lacked a cohesive vision of what they were actually marching for.
“We did do the best we could have done given the resources we had,” Aquino said.
Craig Fryer, an associate professor at the University of Maryland who studies substance use among teenagers, attended the march to raise awareness about racial disparities in funding for research. He came away “having an appreciation for the sense of belonging,” he said this month.
In the days after the march, organizers held a “week of action,” urging participants to harness the energy of the event by contributing to citizen science projects and contacting elected officials. According to Sofia Ahsanuddin, a public health researcher and March for Science board member, participants reached all 100 senators, 97 percent of members of the House of Representatives and 49 out of 50 governors.
Then the efforts tapered off, to the disappointment of some marchers. “It looks to me as if the March for Science was a singular event which the public has forgotten already,” said Wolf Krebs, a retired anatomy professor.
Others said they felt subtler ripple effects from the event.
Fryer, who still reads the weekly emails from march organizers, say the messages make him feel connected to people who feel science is important. He and several colleagues who also attended the Washington event have formed a writing support group to help one another draft grant proposals, edit articles for publication and craft public outreach efforts.
Molecular biologist Maryam Zaringhalam was dissatisfied with march organizers' response to criticism about the way they addressed sexism and racism in science. She marched anyway alongside fellow members of the activist group 500 Women Scientists “to show this is what a scientist looks like,” she said. Months later, she is still in touch with people she met at the march and during online debates about diversity at the event.
She said that the march — intentionally or not — forced discussions about the treatment of women and people of color in science into the spotlight.
“It was like a catalyst to open more eyes and minds,” she said. “We still have prominent scientific thinkers that are out there tweeting, saying that inclusion and diversity are distractions. But for every tweet that I see like that, I see 10 more that are people waking up to the fact that we haven’t done well by a lot of different kinds of people.”
McEntee said the march has increased cooperation among scientific societies, many of which signed on as partners for the event after it became clear that the march would be a landmark moment for the scientific community.
In another sign of the times, more than a dozen new events have been added to the schedule for the AGU's fall meeting in December, with titles such as “Congressional Visits Workshop,” “Policymaker Call-a-thon,” and “The scientific integrity and freedom session.”
Aaron Huertas, a science communication consultant who volunteered with the march but is no longer involved with the organization, said that scientists seem more willing to talk about social issues these days. He noted how many researchers participated in #ScientistsTakeaKnee, a show of support for NFL players protesting racial discrimination and police violence, and the backlash against the science journal Nature for publishing an editorial in defense of a statue of a gynecologist known to have committed medical atrocities.
“The march is a major step in the science advocacy community’s evolution, but I don’t think we’ve seen it translate into really massive grass-roots action yet,” Huertas said.
March organizers say that's what they're working on now — their efforts are simply more under the radar.
“It’s kind of a delight to have months to build a website and process things, instead of having everything be urgent,” Weinberg said.
The organization now has eight paid part-time staff members (Weinberg among them) and a single full-time employee: Chief Operating Officer Terry Kush, a consultant who has worked for the National Consumers League and several nonprofits.
Organizers continue to face accusations of mismanagement. On Monday, Huertas posted an open letter criticizing the national group's handling of volunteers and diversity issues and the transparency of its hiring process. The letter urged people to work with local marches instead. As of early Monday afternoon the letter has been signed by six other volunteers with the national organization and one march participant.
Weinberg said that the group will consider the concerns brought up in the letter, but the national organization has sought to make its transition transparent, hosting biweekly calls with partners and satellite marches and conducting open hiring processes for positions that were not filled by pre-March volunteers. She noted that the March also offers a general breakdown of how donations are spent on its fundraising page.
The goals of the March for Science nonprofit are still being worked out: “In general, what we’re working toward is promoting science for the common good in society and policy,” Weinberg said. “The way we can work on that is empowering people to be effective advocates and giving them the knowledge they need.”
The group is developing free resources for scientists interested in advocacy, including manuals for attending town halls, scripts for calling public officials, and one-page informational memos on science-related policy issues, such as clean air or vector-borne disease. They have also developed guides to organizing science outreach events, such as science cafes and trivia nights. The materials include tips for ensuring that the events feature a diverse group of speakers and are accessible to people with disabilities or limited resources.
The march is also developing a grant program to support science advocacy, outreach and organizing in under-served communities.
Meanwhile, several satellite marches have been working on their own to maintain the momentum from April 22. Navid Zohoury, a manager at an autoimmune diagnostic company who had never participated in a political protest before he signed up to help organize the march in San Diego, said his group is in the process of filing for nonprofit status.
He bristled at the idea that the march missed its chance to make a long-term impact.
“When you have an organic movement, sure, I wish we could harness all that energy that the movement created immediately after,” he said. “But we had never done this before. All we were trying to do was make sure we had caution tape and the bull horns and porta-potties.”
After April 22, everyone was so exhausted that it was difficult to think about next steps.
“But there is still energy within the community,” Zohoury continued. “It's one of those things where we just keep poking each other, putting one step in front of the other, and, hopefully, things happen.”
And when April comes around in another six months, Weinberg said, they plan to march again.