This Earth Day scientists and their advocates will march in the streets to support scientific research and protest antiscience policies. More than 500 demonstrations are planned for Saturday in communities around the world—from Washington, D.C., to Tokyo to Accra, Ghana. The event, called the March for Science, is not just a one-off effort though. Its organizers say they have plans to create a lasting movement, one that will help connect people of all political beliefs to scientists and their work—and that will also push the public to demand science-based policies from the government.
Although it is unusual for researchers to get involved in such vocal advocacy—something the march’s organizers have faced criticism for—those participating feel it is a necessary step to defend science. As the march’s mission statement explains, “People who value science have remained silent for far too long in the face of policies that ignore scientific evidence and endanger both human life and the future of our world. … Staying silent is a luxury that we can no longer afford.”
Scientific American spoke with Caroline Weinberg, national co-chair of the march and a health educator and advocate, about the motivation behind the March for Science and the movement she and her fellow organizers hope will continue after April 22.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
What are some concrete actions that the march's organizers want to see come out of this event?
The goal of the march is to get people excited about the role of science in society and ready to agitate for science in policy. We want to channel that passion into a lasting movement that breaks down the barriers between scientists and their communities.
It sounds like there have been fairly big disagreements over the march’s message. Why do you think that is? And has one unified message finally emerged?
Science is a vast topic. With hundreds of thousands of people worldwide getting behind the movement, people are going to disagree about what the focus should be, what we emphasize and how things are worded. That’s inevitable. The common thread in everything we do is highlighting the role of science in society and the need for science to be more inclusive and diverse, to make sure all communities are represented. This is necessary in order to have the kind of science that allows politicians to craft policies that will benefit everyone, instead of just certain communities.
The people behind this march say it is not partisan, and yet some are already portraying it as a leftist protest. Does that matter? And if so, how do you change that image?
It does matter. We’re nonpartisan because science is not partisan. The reason we advocate for research to inform policy is because the scientific method exists to try to reduce biased interpretations of the world. Science works to give you answers that transcend partisanship—and so everyone should be behind it. Painting science as specific to one party is how we ended up in this situation. There are Republicans who are pro-science, and there are Democrats who support antiscience policies. Such policies have been around in the government for decades. This is not new, and it has happened from all sides.
To the degree that people perceive science as being partisan or liberal, the best we can do is push back against that with our messaging and with what we do with this organization after the march. We have to engage people across the political spectrum.
Why shouldn’t scientists just share their research with politicians and the public, and then let them decide what to do with it?
If you discover something that should play a role in policy, you should be advocating for that research to be spread widely and used, because that’s what it’s there for. Also, when a policy is implemented that results in damage to our water or air, for example, it affects scientists in the same way it affects everyone else. All Americans should be advocating for things that protect us and are in our best interest. Scientists are a part of that as well.
Do you think there is a risk this march might alienate some of the very people the scientific community should be trying to connect with?
We are doing everything we can to try to prevent that from happening. But there are people who have decided already what a march means, and who think that anyone who marches sits in a certain box. So yes, there is a risk.
Part of our goal is to ensure that what we set up after the march is inclusive, in a way that works hard to get even the detractors onboard. The message is that policies grounded in science should be representing and benefitting everyone—that’s a concept that, if we do it right, we should be able to get everyone behind.
What will efforts to connect with those who do not share the marchers’ views look like?
A big part of what we’re going to do post-march is making sure scientists are creating a dialogue with their communities. We’re going to work to get scientists into schools and talk to kids about their research and why it’s important. We can do the same things in community centers, retirement homes, rotary clubs or athletic leagues—wherever it is—to make sure scientists have these dialogues with people.
How can the average citizen engage with science after this event?
We’re hoping to create a platform that makes it easier for community members to connect with scientists. We could have a “dial a scientist” program, where if someone has an event that’s happening and they want a scientist to come speak, we’ll be able to help set that up. We’re trying to encourage scientists to get out into their communities but we also have to encourage communities to reach out to scientists. Working together is the only way to move forward.
Do you think this march can lead to real policy change?
I don’t think that politicians who craft policies against climate change will open the newspaper on Sunday, see photos of the march and think, ‘Oh maybe I should believe in climate change.’
But one of the things we saw from the failure to overturn the Affordable Care Act is that people going to town halls and speaking to their representatives is powerful and effective. I’m hoping that the march and what comes after it will help people engage with how science benefits their everyday lives, and make the connection between science and policy. We need to empower people to know what that message is, be able to communicate it well and then get out and advocate for it. That’s how I think policy change will happen.
How do scientists and the public keep the support for science going next week, next month and next year?
Keep the discussion going. Make sure that scientists in every community, in every state, in every country are getting their work out and communicating it—and make sure that people are invested in it. The more people we can keep engaged with science, the better equipped we’ll be to make sure it stays in the public eye. Politicians should be embarrassed when part of their platform is a blatantly anti-science policy.
What would make this march a success, in your mind?
The power and the success of the march will be measured in its lasting impact—what happens with the movement in the future. The supporters of the march, the people who are organizing it, the scientists—everyone who’s involved—your work does not end on the night of April 22.