On April 22, I rode to Washington, D.C., for the March for Science.
The week before the event, I stumbled upon an article that drew unexpected comparisons between the March for Science and, of all things, the 1970s farmers’ protests. If you’ve heard anything about the March for Science, you’ve probably heard the common narrative that “introverted,” “peaceable” scientists don’t normally protest. We are “timid,” but above all, “objective,” and, therefore, we eschew politics. If we, of all people, must publicly plead for respect and funding, things must be pretty bad.
In the weeks leading up to the March for Science, there was intense discussion within the scientific community over what we would be marching for, or even if we should be marching. While the march was morphing from a suggestion over social media to a highly coordinated international event, a set of clear goals and demands never emerged. Seemingly everybody who wanted to participate knew in their hearts why this was important — science denialism, threats to science funding, the environment and pollution, treatment of underrepresented groups in science — but nobody had catchy one-liners prepared for the media to explain what they had hoped to accomplish.
Some scientists didn’t even think there should have been a march: to demonstrate, they believed, would threaten science’s legitimacy as an “impartial” enterprise, and would further alienate those of political stripes who are already skeptical of the scientific establishment, even if the demonstration weren’t overtly political.
However, the March eventually won endorsements from major scientific societies such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Society for Neuroscience, likely because they realized that it is disingenuous to claim political impartiality when most science research depends on funding from the federal government. Throughout the world, the March became a multifaceted celebration of science and how scientific accomplishments have made our world safer and healthier. But the questions still remain: why, and why now?
While it is rare for members of any occupational group to organize national political protests, as a scientist I was pleasantly surprised to find out that our grievances and goals aligned us with farmers, of all groups, who appear to be well liked by the public. An analogy between farmers and scientists is sure to draw some surprise, but why pleasant surprise? As a scientist-in-training, I am acutely aware of how scientists are portrayed in the media, and it’s not all good. Above all, the most negative stereotype about scientists is that we are unrelatable. How many career scientists do you know?
Think about that. One? Fifteen? Zero? Unless you have a relative who is a scientist, the person closest to being a career scientist in your life is likely a physician or a science teacher. And unless you live in a college town or a major city, you may rarely even have the opportunity to cross paths with a career scientist.
Immediately before the March, there was much talk on social media about the rift between scientists and the general public. Moreover, some people recognized that some of the blame for this rift lay at scientists’ feet. Although not always emphasized in the recent narratives surrounding the March for Science, the March sparked more interest in science outreach and community engagement. Some of us, as scientists, are slowly realizing that we don’t engage with our surrounding communities enough, and this is the case all over the country. While I was in college, I naively thought the fraught relationship between Emory University and Atlanta was the poster child of the fractures between a university and its surrounding community — until I witnessed the disconnect between Columbia University and Harlem in New York City.
That isn’t to say that nothing was being done before. College and graduate students have been setting up science outreach programs for schoolchildren and even adults for years. However, the March for Science has instigated some soul-searching more broadly in the scientific community. Not only are more science students expressing interest in volunteering, but I see signs that universities and other major organizations are considering investments in giving back to their surrounding communities. Whether it’s through explaining what do we to a friend (who’s not a scientist) over lunch, traveling the state to give unpaid talks about why what we do is important, or starting a new community initiative, we want you to know that you secretly love science, too.
But there are some factors outside of our control that have also contributed to a gulf between scientists and the general public. Popular attitudes that deny science, such as the anti-vaccination movement and climate change denial, have become downright demoralizing to scientists across the spectrum, from ecologists to biomedical scientists, especially those who research what they do because they know lives depend on it.
While the media are our partners, they do not always help the situation when they distort scientists’ claims to increase readership, only to give the general public false hope about the state of the field surrounding contentious subjects like terminal illnesses. Politicians who trash the scientific establishment and brag about massive cuts to research funding in search of cheap political points instill genuine fear among scientists, not only about their own livelihoods, but also about the safety of people whom scientists hope their research will protect.
Never mind that these proposed cuts, while devastating to our science enterprise, would amount to a drop in the bucket towards reducing the federal budget deficit. The election of Donald Trump as president, who ran a campaign denying key scientific findings; has appointed cabinet officials and heads of scientific organizations who are opposed to the stated missions of their departments; and has proposed debilitating cuts to ecological, energy-related, and biomedical research, was obviously the straw that broke the camel’s back. However, the political environment that bred this anti-science atmosphere was apparent long before 2016.
Why is there ill-will between science and politicians (and even part of the general public) now? Several famous science advocates, such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, have attributed it to a denial of truth or to fanatic dogmatism. However, people who write off contemporary anti-science attitudes as simply anti-fact miss the point. Politicians and propagandists who espouse anti-science rhetoric do not oppose including the periodic table in textbooks, nor do they deny that E = mc2.
However, they do oppose pollution regulations, and they do deny that burning fossil fuels is contributing to the current global climate change. Why are they so selective? It’s not because they are opposed to facts. It’s because they’re opposed to action — any action that would harm their industry. Quick research would reveal that what separates politicians and organizations that appear to oppose science from those that don’t is that the “anti-science” lobby receives funding from groups that would be hindered if society acted on scientific findings. When you have a conflict of interest, it’s easiest to delay or defer action by inciting confusion. Why argue over what needs to be done when you can instill doubt that there is a problem in the first place?
Science, politics, government, and society have long been deeply intertwined. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The United States began investing in science to inform policy, provide a technological edge, and treat and solve problems. As scientists, we aspire to be of service to humanity. In high-income countries, our lives are not problem-free, but we are among the safest and healthiest human beings to have ever walked this planet — because of medical and technological advancements fueled by scientific discoveries.
There are billions of people across the world who would not be here today without the windfalls of scientific discoveries. However, if we lose the people’s support, this miracle engine could come crashing to a halt. If it does nothing else, I hope the March for Science and the surrounding movement establish a new, greater covenant between scientists and the people.
Nicholas Singletary is a Columbus native, a graduate of Emory University and currently a Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at Columbia University in New York.