Just inside the entrance to the Washington Monument, a handful of people hold black and white signs bearing the words ADA assistance. As one one man walks by, he briefly pauses to consider their message. “Americans with Disabilities Act, or Ada Lovelace?” he says. “She was a great mathematician.”
It’s just shy of 9AM in Washington DC, where thousands of scientists, researchers, academics, doctors, students, and concerned citizens are gathering on the damp grass surrounding the landmark. They’ve come from New York, Philadelphia, Maryland, New Mexico, and across the US to show their support for science. Scientists have been planning a March on Washington since late January, shortly after Donald Trump took office.
Scientists and their supporters don’t usually march — but recent events have troubled them. Under Trump, scientists have been silenced; his attempted immigration ban directly threatened international scientific collaboration; he’s signed executive orders that will destroy efforts to fight climate change; his proposed budget cuts for 2018 slash funding for crucial scientific research. Though the March for Science has done its best to maintain its political neutrality (Per March for Science PR: “The goal of the March for Science is to highlight the valuable role science plays in society and policy, and to demonstrate deep public support for science”), it has been widely understood as a protest of these policies. DC is only one march — more than 600 “satellite” demonstrations took place worldwide.
Perhaps significantly, before the March took place, there was much rending of garments and gnashing of teeth about whether science was political (which: yes, always! But not necessarily partisan) from one camp. Another group of scientists felt the March wasn’t political enough. Last month, Stat reported infighting among organizers as disagreements broke out over how the movement should handle diversity — or in some cases, lack thereof. The split was so severe Memphis actually had two Marches for Science. In the run-up to the March, dueling op-eds made it increasingly unclear who the March is actually for, and who might actually come.
“Grab a book, not a pussy”
Earth Day dawns cold, gray, and very wet in DC. As marchers filter into the Washington Monument grounds, they crowd around a small stage near the obelisk. Many people are sporting lab coats, goggles, and brain caps — the science answer to pink pussy hats — to go along with their protest signs. They parade by with phrases more clever — and dorky — than you average demonstration. “STEMinist,” read several, while a young man marches past with a sign that simply says “.” Others are direct: “Climate change is real.” “Believe us.” “Grab a book, not a pussy.”
We begin with science lessons. Dozens of speakers, from young women in STEM programs to Bill Nye the science guy, give lightning-fast talks on science and its importance. Attendees gather on the massive lawn, signs in hand, as it starts to rain more heavily. It’s miserable to be out in the open, but people gamely shake their signs in the face of bad weather.
Lindsay and Michael Fitch — a pediatrician and a physicist, respectively — have come from Baltimore. Michael says that their trip was spurred on by the need for scientists to have room to come up with accurate data in order to help politicians make the best policy decisions. “I feel like there are people trying to do that in the reverse order,” he says. “The politicians are trying to decide what the answer is, and interfere with science. That's not the way to do the right thing for our country and the world.”
Lindsay says that it’s not a scientist’s job to hide information that doesn’t fit with someone’s ideology. She points to the EPA gag orders. “Wantonly disregarding science and defunding science is a disaster for our future,” she says. “And then there's global warming, and that's not gonna stop.” Disregarding basic facts, ignoring the scientific method, and attempting to make decisions without consulting that evidence is how “bad decisions get made.” It’s like saying 2+2=5 and ignoring everything else, she says.
Facts and truth seem to be on everyone’s mind at the march. Throughout the micro-talks, several speakers will openly deride Kellyanne Conway’s infamous comment about “alternative facts,” or policy makers that want to ignore the issue of climate change. It has highlighted the political quality of sifting out facts and observations to determine truth. Over and over, marchers told me they wanted evidence-based political policy, and independent science. Facts are often homely things, but the demonstrators treasure them all the same.
“if people go elsewhere, then American science loses out.”
Justus McMillan, a geology major from Maryland, says he’s come to DC to support “good science and facts.” He’s attending the march alone, but felt it was important to come. "There's a lot of misinformation about what science is and what good science is,” he says. Another attendee, Laura O’Brien, credits her “unapologetically nerdy” family as part of her reason for attending. “We love science,” says O’Brien. “We believe in science. We have family members who have been saved by science. It's important. Facts matter.”
Chris Round is an environmental scientist, specializing in climate change and climate policy, and he says he’s afraid the current administration will squander an opportunity to curtail climate change. But he’s also here for more personal reasons. Round does consulting work for the federal government — and Trump’s budget cuts will eliminate his job as well as his funding for his doctorate.
In fact, several of Trump’s policies hit close to home for Round. Lots of people who work in science and engineering are foreign-born, and come to the US to study. “I went to school with many people like that,” he says. “If we don't let these people come and learn science, we're gonna lose out on opportunities to have great minds potentially stay here and help the United States grow. If people go elsewhere — and Silicon Valley has seen this to an extent — if people go elsewhere, then American science loses out.”
“ditch the jargon. Make an effort”
On-stage, speakers dash in and dash out. Music breaks up the monotony, including on-the-nose performances from people like Thomas Dolby singing “She Blinded Me With Science.” By 2PM, when the march is ready to begin, these talks have begun to feel — for a moment, at least — redundant. Thousands of intelligent, science-concerned individuals have already gathered to demonstrate their belief in its importance. Hours of talks from like-minded thinkers, brilliant though they may be, feels like preaching to choir. But sometimes even the choir wants the reassurance of a sermon; people are here, at least in part, to be reminded that they are not alone. Facts do matter. Facts do matter to an awful lot of people, and some of them are here.
Scientists have often struggled to communicate with the public that frequently funds their work. While basic research has historically been a great investment, government funding for science has stagnated over the last decade. Some scientists feel that the way to bolster funding is to communicate better with their ultimate funders, the ordinary tax payer. But many scientists haven’t learned these skills. One speaker, Tyler DeWitt, a YouTube star who specializes in explaining chemistry, told a story about a young girl talking to a grad student. The girl’s enthusiastic question about science was met with an overly complicated, dull answer. “We can’t talk like that grad student,” DeWitt said. “If you care about science, if you use science, I beg you, explain what you do and why it's important. But ditch the jargon. Make an effort ... We cannot complain about the slashed funding if we can't tell taxpayers why science matters.”
Explaining science to the public might seem trivial — but most scientists aren’t taught how to communicate effectively with an ordinary audience. As a result, many aren’t very good at it. And this kind of outreach work often isn’t paid, either — it’s a pro-bono effort, and a lot of scientists are busy doing their actual paid work. Those who do tend to do outreach work sometimes sacrifice their own scientific careers in the process. Bill Nye doesn’t do research, after all; outreach is his full-time job.
As the march finally gets underway, people seem eager to be moving. “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Alternative facts have got to go!” becomes one of the many rallying cries of the day. Occasionally, a cascade of cheers from the front of the march flows through the snaking line like sports fans doing the wave at a game.
As people parade down Constitution Avenue, protesters who have peeled off from the snaking line stand to the sides. They hold their signs and shout words of encouragement to those still walking. “Scientists, they can see you!” shouts a man near the street’s edge. “Now make them hear you!”
The crowd roars in response, chanting “Science! Not Silence!” as the rain finally starts to lighten. How scientists will communicate with the public, the government, and each other following the march remains to be seen. If the run-up to today is any indication, it will likely be messy — but then, so’s science itself.