Science March: Is it about Science, or Politics?

April 22, 2017, 5:07 PM UTC

The March for Science will bring thousands of scientists and activists to the streets today in, according to organizers, more than 600 cities across the world. Like any mass demonstration, participants will attend with a wide range of motivations. But the mingling of the activist community and the science community, which often tries to distance itself from politics, has produced a specific kind of public fragmentation.

Motivation for the March has come from proposed cuts to research funding by the Trump administration, and administration orders restraining government scientists from making public statements. That gag order has been widely seen as part of an administration agenda to restrict climate change research.

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But many involved in the March say its goal is less to tar the Trump administration than to highlight the overall importance of science funding and evidence-based policymaking, which they see as a nonpartisan agenda. The undermining of scientific evidence is, undeniably, an issue that far predates the Trump administration.

But another focus has also emerged. Since it was first announced in January, organizers have revised the March’s mission to also include calls for greater diversity within the scientific community itself. That agenda pulls the March further to the left of the current political landscape, potentially alienating right-wing conservatives. That could be damaging to the March’s efforts to push back against climate-change denial in particular: American Republicans, for instance, overwhelmingly distrust scientists and their claims about global warming.

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Some commentators have gone so far as to describe science as an endeavor that seeks, not universal truth, but a truth shaped by scientists’ social context. That implicitly includes their beliefs and biases on gender, sexuality, and race. Science has a distinctly mixed track record on these issues, having for instance lent considerable support to ‘scientific’ theories of race. The idea that science is subject to bias is also frequently reiterated by those who doubt its findings on climate.

In short, many marchers today will be on the street celebrating science and its importance to the world. At the same time, others will be focusing on science’s failure to resist certain broader social problems. While that breadth of vision may have helped make the March such a huge phenomenon, it also presents a risk all too common for public demonstrations – that after the marchers go home, no one will be entirely sure what it was all about.

The March on Science in Washington D.C., which includes an array of speakers, is being livestreamed on YouTube here.

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