Scientists Take to Streets to Defend Research
Thousands of scientists worldwide left their labs to take to the streets Saturday along with students and research advocates in pushing back against what they say are mounting attacks on science.
The March for Science, coinciding with Earth Day, was set for more than 500 cities, anchored in Washington and to be joined by dozens of nonpartisan scientific professional societies in a turnout intended to combine political and how-to science demonstrations.
Marchers in Geneva carried signs that said, “Science — A Candle in the Dark” and “Science is the Answer.” In Berlin, several thousand people participated in a march from the one of the city’s universities to the Brandenburg Gate landmark. “We need to make more of our decision based on facts again and less on emotions,” said Meike Weltin, a doctorate student at an environmental institute near the capital.
In London, physicists, astronomers, biologists and celebrities gathered for a march past the city’s most celebrated research institutions. Supporters carried signs showing images of a double helix and chemical symbols.
The protest was putting scientists, who generally shy away from advocacy and whose work depends on objective experimentation, into a more public position.
Organizers portrayed the march as political but not partisan, promoting the understanding of science as well as defending it from various attacks, including proposed U.S. government budget cuts under President Donald Trump, such as a 20% slice of the National Institute of Health.
Signs and banners readied for the Washington rally reflected anger, humor and obscure scientific references, such as a 7-year-old’s “No Taxation Without Taxonomy.” Taxonomy is the science of classifying animals, plants and other organisms.
The sign that 9-year-old Sam Klimas held was red, handmade and personal: “Science saved my life.” He had a form of brain cancer and has been healthy for eight years now. His mother, grandmother and brother traveled with him from Parkersburg, West Virginia. “I have to do everything I can to oppose the policies of this administration,” said his grandmother, Susan Sharp.”
Scientists involved in the march said they were anxious about political and public rejection of established science such as climate change and the safety of vaccine immunizations.
“Scientists find it appalling that evidence has been crowded out by ideological assertions,” said Rush Holt, a former physicist and Democratic congressman who runs the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “It is not just about Donald Trump, but there is also no question that marchers are saying ‘when the shoe fits.”
Judy Twigg, a public health professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, was aiming one of her signs at the president. The sign showed the periodic table of chemical elements and said: “You’re out of your element Donny (Trump).” For Twigg, who was wearing a T-shirt that said “Science is not a liberal conspiracy,” research is a matter of life and death on issues such as polio and child mortality.
Despite saying the march was not partisan, Holt acknowledged it was only dreamed up at the Women’s March on Washington, a day after Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20.
“It’s not about the current administration. The truth is we should have been marching for science 30 years ago, 20 years, 10 years ago,” said co-organizer and public health researcher Caroline Weinberg. “The current (political) situation took us from kind of ignoring science to blatantly attacking it. And that seems to be galvanizing people in a way it never has before. … It’s just sort of relentless attacks on science.”
“The scientific method was developed to be nonpartisan and objective,” Weinberg said. “It should be embraced by both parties.”
Christine McEntee, executive director of the American Geophysical Union, a global professional organization of earth and space scientists, cited concerns by scientists and threats to research as a result of elections in the U.S. and other countries.
Threats to science are heightened in Turkey and elsewhere in Europe, said McEntee, who planned to march with geophysical scientists in Vienna, Austria.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who exposed the dangerous lead levels in the drinking water and children’s blood in Flint, Michigan, planned to march in Washington and speak to the crowd.
“It’s risky, but that’s when we make advancements when we take risks … for our heart rates to go up, to be a little anxious and scared and uncomfortable,” she said before the event.