On Saturday, April 14, 2018, I watched as thousands of scientists, activists, and protesters peacefully marched down Constitution Avenue, past the Washington Monument and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) headquarters, in Washington, D.C. They carried colorful signs, chanted catchy slogans, and braved a bright, hot day in April to do so. They were gathered against what they perceived as environmentally and morally hazardous policies undertaken by the current administration. The March for Science 2018, the second of its name, did not receive as much attention as its predecessors, the Women’s March and March for Our Lives, and drew smaller crowds than in 2017. Yet I could not help but think that its cause, to bring nonpartisan science into policy discussions, is fighting against broader trends towards the politicization of scientific fact, with massive implications for all Americans.
The March for Science movement started with the activities of one man, University of Texas biology postdoctoral researcher Jonathan Berman, and expanded as activists of all stripes joined. The organizers of the movement have stated, as one of their primary goals, a future where “science is fully embraced in public life and policy.” This goal reflects a shift in priorities for members of the scientific community, who normally have been content to remain outside of political debates. With science increasingly being called into question by politicians of all stripes, on issues from vaccine safety to the changing climate, the participants in the March for Science, many of whom are scientists and activists for environmental non-profit organizations, have taken to political activism in a reflection of the growing culture of protest in the United States. This growth in activism among people who normally avoided involvement could be an indicator of the potency of the March for Science.
However, with much of the movement focused specifically on the actions of the Trump administration, there exists a significant risk that the March for Science will instead exacerbate the threat of partisan politics to the integrity of factual information. Speakers at the 2018 March for Science methodically raised the dire consequences of ignoring scientific fact in a wide range of issues, especially with rising global temperatures to water purity. They specifically cited efforts by Trump administration officials to wipe climate change language from all policy and focused largely on the EPA and its regulatory rollback since Trump’s appointed EPA Administrator, former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, took office. Under Pruitt, the EPA has questioned its use of science for research and policy purposes and rolled back a number of protections restricting water, air, and land pollution; supporters cite this elimination of protections as a way of “working to balance protecting the environment with fostering job growth and economic recovery.” In addition to the removal of environmental protections, the Trump administration has attempted to restrict punishing those who violate existing environmental protections, collecting fewer fines from mass polluters than any administration preceding it. Despite the organization’s pledge for nonpartisanship, the risk of specifically targeting the policies of the Trump administration threatens to turn scientific information into points of political debate rather than unimpeachable facts.
While some scientists are increasing their activism in response to the policies of the Trump administration, others are content to remain outside of the realm of politics. They cite a need for nonpartisanship and a lack of desire to get involved, as well as a fear that the combination of science and politics will lead to a discrediting of their ideas. Indeed, the March for Science has met with resistance from some within the scientific community who fear that the merger of science and activism will permanently mark scientists as “liberal crusaders” in the public eye, politicizing the work of these scientists and potentially undermining the trust of non-liberal members of the electorate. Others have responded by saying that science has already been politicized as the result of a lengthy campaign by right-wing media figures like Rush Limbaugh to paint a picture of various American institutions as corrupted by the political left. This campaign is arguably part of a broader anti-intellectual and anti-elite trends that threaten to politicize the use of science and reason in policy and lead to people cherry picking factual information to suit their needs. Turning scientific research and facts into points of political debate threatens to undermine people’s faith in those institutions, creating a vacuum for those who seek to misinform or propagate disinformation for political purposes, undermining the forces of logic and reason that underpin our democratic system. The consequences of this politicization includes the formation of a group of people like the anti-vaxxers, who do not believe doctors and scientific evidence and actively campaign against the vaccination of children for highly contagious diseases like measles, mumps, and rubella.
While speakers and protesters alike at the March for Science spoke of their desire to remain nonpartisan, they also included discussions of issues ranging from diversity and immigration in the STEM fields to scientific research into gun violence to the Flint water crisis and Republican politicians’ role in exacerbating the crisis. Many in attendance specifically referenced the actions of the Trump administration, leaving me with the impression that their cause was not strictly nonpartisan, but part of a wider political debate raging across the country between those who see facts as irreproachable and others who are content to use science and factual information where it serves their political agenda. The recent activism of typically apolitical scientists, while important in advocating for more resources for scientific research and the inclusion of evidence in policy making and signaling the potency of the movement, also carries with it a risk of making science up for political debate. Dakin Andone and Lindsay Benson, “March for Science draws smaller crowds than last year, but attendees are still passionate,” published April 14, 2018, retrieved May 6, 2018.  March for Science, “What We Do,” retrieved May 6, 2018.  Erica Chenoweth, “People are in the streets protesting Donald Trump. But when does protest actually work?” published November 21, 2016, retrieved May 7, 2018.  Chenoweth, “People are in the streets protesting Donald Trump.”  Environmental Integrity Project, “Regulatory Rollbacks,” retrieved May 7, 2018.  Ken Blackwell, “Trump team continues to roll back the regulatory state,” published April 16, 2018, retrieved May 7, 2018.  Umair Irfan and Christina Animashaun, “How Trump is letting polluters off the hook, in one chart,” published February 22, 2018, retrieved May 7, 2018.  Brian Resnick, “Scientists are going to march on Washington. Here’s why that’s awkward,” published February 7, 2017, retrieved May 7, 2018.  Resnick, “Scientists are going to march on Washington.”  Heather Horn, “Is the Right-Wing Anti-Science?” published September 10, 2010, retrieved May 8, 2018.  Ryan W. Miller, “March for Science 2018: Passionate advocates push the cause for research across the globe,” published April 14, 2018, retrieved May 8, 2018.
*Photo by bones64 (Pixabay), Creative Commons Zero license