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March for Science will take scientists’ activism to a new level

People rally not around a single issue but around science with a capital S

pro-science protest

GIVE ME AN 'S'  Thousands of pro-science citizens are expected to march in hundreds of cities April 22 during the first-of-its-kind March for Science. Scientists have been politically engaged in the past — here, supporters listen to scientists speaking out at a climate change rally in San Francisco in December — but historians are calling the upcoming march unprecedented.

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Lab coats aren’t typical garb for mass demonstrations, but they may be on full display April 22. That’s when thousands of scientists, science advocates and science-friendly citizens are expected to flood the streets in the March for Science. Billed by organizers as both a celebration of science and part of a movement to defend science’s vital role in society, the event will include rallies and demonstrations in Washington, D.C., and more than 400 other cities around the world.

“Unprecedented,” says sociologist Kelly Moore, an expert on the intersection of science and politics at Loyola University Chicago. “This is the first time in American history where scientists have taken to the streets to collectively protest the government’s misuse and rejection of scientific expertise.”

Some scientists have expressed concern that marching coats science in a partisan sheen; others say that cat is long out of the bag. Keeping science nonpartisan is a laudable goal, but scientists are human beings who work and live in societies — and have opinions as scientists and citizens when it comes to the use, or perceived misuse, of science.

Typically when scientists get involved with a political issue, it’s as an expert sharing knowledge that can aid in creating informed policy. There are standard venues for this: Professional societies review evidence and make statements about a particular issue, researchers publish findings or consensus statements in reports or journals, and sometimes scientists testify before Congress.

In extreme circumstances, though, scientists have embraced other forms of activism. To broadly categorize, there are:    

Celebrity voices

In 1938, amid the rise of fascism and use of false scientific claims to support the racism embedded in Nazism, prominent German-American anthropologist Franz Boas released his “Scientists Manifesto.” Signed by nearly 1,300 scientists, including three Nobel laureates, the manifesto denounced the unscientific tenets of Nazism and condemned fascist attacks on scientific freedom.

Fear of war of a different sort prompted Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and nine other scientists to compose a manifesto in 1955 calling for nuclear disarmament. The Russell-Einstein Manifesto led to the first Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, which sought “a world free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.”

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Rachel Carson

Wildlife biologist Rachel Carson eloquently synthesized research on the effects of pesticides in her wildly popular book Silent Spring, published in 1962 (she would later testify before Congress). Despite attacks from industry and some in government, Carson’s work helped launch the modern environmental movement, paving the way for the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Advocacy groups

In the 1930s, chapters of the American Association of Scientific Workers (based loosely on a similar British organization) formed in various cities including Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago. Despite broad goals — promoting science for the benefit of society, stressing public science education, taking a moral stand against government and industry misuse of science — infighting and members’ opposing views limited the group’s effectiveness.

In the decades since, other broadly focused groups — for example, Science for the People (born out of a group started in 1969 by physicists frustrated by their professional society’s lack of action against the Vietnam War), the Union of Concerned Scientists, the American Association for the Advancement of Science — have picked up the banner, speaking out, circulating petitions and more. Single-issue groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the Council for Responsible Genetics have proliferated as well.

Protest marchers

Many scientists have traded pocket protectors for placards, hitting the streets as concerned scientist-citizens. Academic scientists frequently joined university students in rallies against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early ’70s. Linus Pauling famously protested nuclear testing in a march outside the White House in 1962 (he was in town for a dinner with the Kennedys honoring Nobel laureates). Carl Sagan was one of hundreds arrested for protesting nuclear testing at a Nevada site in 1987. And plenty of scientist-citizens joined the inaugural Women’s March on Washington in January and the annual People’s Climate March (the 2017 one is scheduled for April 29, just a week after the March for Science).

But the March for Science feels different, say the science historians. Transforming concern into sign-toting, pavement-pounding, slogan-shouting activism is motivated by a collective — and growing — sense of outrage that the federal government is undermining, ignoring, even discarding and stifling science. That’s hitting many scientists not just in their livelihoods, but in the very fabric of their DNA. “Part of [President] Trump’s message is that science is not going to be thought of as part of a collective good that’s essential for decision making in a democracy,” Moore says. “We have not seen this outright rejection of science by the state.”

That rejection has come in many forms, says David Kaiser, a science historian at MIT. “It’s a cluster of issues: cutbacks in basic research across many domains, the censure and censorship regarding data collected by the government or the ability of government scientists to speak, and a range of threats to academic freedom and the research process generally.”

It’s a sign of the times, too, says Al Teich, a science policy expert at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. President Reagan, for example, slashed science in his budget in 1981. But many more people today are aware of science’s role in society, says Teich, the former director for science and policy programs at AAAS. This awareness may be fueling the upcoming march. “The number of people engaged and the range of scientists involved is not something that I’ve ever seen before.”

Measuring the impact of any of these efforts is difficult. They aren’t controlled laboratory experiments, after all. But one thing this march may do is spawn a new form of activism, says Moore: more scientists running for political office.

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