March for science
They marched for science, and at first, they did so quietly. On Saturday, as thousands of people started streaming eastward from the Washington Monument, in a river of ponchos and umbrellas, the usual raucous chants that accompany such protests were rarely heard and even more rarely continued. “Knowledge is power; it’s our final hour,” said six enthusiastic people—to little response. “What do we want? Science! When do we want it? After peer review!” shouted another pocket of marchers—for about five rounds.
Scientists are not a group to whom activism comes easily or familiarly. Most have traditionally stayed out of the political sphere, preferring to stick to their research. But for many, this historical detachment ended with the election of Donald Trump.
His administration has denied the reality of climate change, courted anti-vaccine campaigners, repeatedly stated easily disproven falsehoods, attempted to gag government scientists, proposed enormous budget cuts that would “set off a lost generation of American science,” and pushed for legislation that would roll back environmental and public health protections, pave the way for genetic discrimination, and displace scientific evidence from the policy-making process. Sensing an assault on many fronts—to their jobs, funds, and to the value of empiricism itself—scientists are grappling with politics to an unprecedented extent. “You know something is wrong when people around the world must protest for science,” said Erich Jarvis, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University, to the assembled crowds.
Despite the March organizers’ insistence that the event was not partisan, anti-Trump sentiments abounded. One woman had written “Fuck Trump” in binary. Several joked that “Trump is like an atom: he makes everything up.” Nancy Daugherty, an artist, had outdone every other sign-maker by painting a beautiful purple octopus whose tentacles were coiled around Trump, Mike Pence, Scott Pruitt, and Betsy DeVos. (“I thought about doing a toilet bowl emptying into a black hole, but didn’t have space,” she says.) Judy McGuire, a retired biochemist who had come from Maryland added that “Science is under threat. This isn’t a partisan issue but it has been made into one.”
Erich Jarvis called for both political parties to continue their support for scientific research. “Science has always received bipartisan Congessional support, and I’m an example where that support made a difference,” he said. As an African-American, raised in a poor neighborhood of New York City, he benefited from government-funded programs designed to support diversity. “That gave me the opportunity to be a scientist and contribute to this society. If 4 more years go by without this funding, we’ll miss a critical period to train the scientists of tomorrow. We’ll not get a second chance.”
But while many figures on stage were scientists or leaders of scientific organizations, most of the people I talked to in the crowd were science enthusiasts, teachers, and parents of sci-curious children. Jeannette Villabon from New Jersey described herself as a “very concerned mom” who had come to “raise awareness of the fact that the climate is changing and the oceans are rising,” she told me, from within a dinosaur costume that she had originally bought to scare her son Nikko. He was there too, sans costume, but with ambitions to study biochemical engineering at college.
They certainly seemed to learn how to be a little more comfortable with activism. “Science Not Silence” read many signs, and by the time the front of the march approached Capitol Hill, the sign-carriers had begun to live up to their message. Chants picked up a little. Waves of cheers traveled up and down the marching column. It was as if the March for Science had recapitulated the journey that science itself has taken in the last six months—a crowd of people approaching the seat of political power with awkwardness and hesitancy, becoming progressively louder with each unfamiliar footfall.
And as people started peeling away and heading home, one woman said, “I need to go back to the lab after this.”