The High Hopes and Political Risks of the March for Science

(First published before April 22nd 2017 March; new posts coming soon)

This Earth Day, April 22nd, scientists and science advocates will be marching in support of evidence-based policy making in Washington DC and at over 500 sites across the world.  According to the official website of the movement, “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. New policies threaten to further restrict scientists’ ability to research and communicate their findings.  We face a possible future where people not only ignore scientific evidence, but seek to eliminate it entirely…We must stand together and support science.”

The movement, which originated on social media, has grown very popular, getting endorsed by the editorial staff of leading science journal Nature and garnering over a half-million likes on Facebook.

Some are more skeptical of the movement however.  A scientist-authored opinion piece in the New York Times warns that this march “will turn scientists into another group caught up in the culture wars and further drive the wedge between scientists and a certain segment of the American electorate” and is instead recommending that supporters of science take measures that are more personal and help put a “face on the debate.”

More recently, an Op-Ed piece in the New Yorker has warned that, “there is a genuine risk that the March for Science will be widely regarded as a manifestation of the great urban-rural divide that helped elect Trump.”  The March for Science states that it is nonpartisan and that “anti-science agendas and policies have been advanced by politicians on both sides of the aisle.”  This nonpartisan spirit is not shared by all.  The East Bay Times Editorial Board advocates the March as a way to stand against certain policies of President Trump and even calls the March for Science a matter of “Life or Death.”

President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts include steep cuts to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) (targeted for an 18% cut) and the Environmental Protection Agency (targeted for a 31% cut).  For supporters of the march, such as the aforementioned Editorial Board of the East Bay Times, the planned cuts to NIH and possible future cuts to the National Science Foundation are projected to jeopardize medical research and harm the economy.

The endorsement in Nature acknowledges the risk the march could feed the (false) narrative that science is a “left-wing” issue and blur the line between science and politics.  Nonetheless they assert, “that line is already much fuzzier than some try to argue.”  Ultimately they, and scientists around the world, hope “despite internal wrinkles, the positive message that crowds of pro-science people on the streets present to the broader world will surely show through.”