Reflections of the March for Science

Posted on Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Author: Tee Guidotti

Fulbright Visiting Research Professor in the ISSP in Winter/Spring 2015. He is the current President of Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Honor Society. Sigma Xi was the first scientific organization to support the March.

The March for Science represented a new phenomenon in science, the rise of a mass demonstration of scientists with a broad agenda in support of the scientific enterprise as a whole rather than a particular issue. On 22 April 2017, over 100,000 scientists, engineers, students, and people concerned for the scientific enterprise marched in mass demonstrations numbering in support of science in major cities and more than a few small towns and even remote research stations. Inspired by the Women’s March and organized in only five months by a small group of scientists, most of whom were post-doctorate fellows.

The March for Science was a grass-roots movement that advocated for support for the scientific enterprise, respect for science as a way of knowing objective reality, and continuation of the tradition of public funding for science as a public good. The greatest significance of the March was not that it changed opinions, although it seems to have, or that it influenced the Administration, which it may have.

For scientists and engineers to openly dissent and to advocate for science outside of their narrow technical fields is virtually unprecedented in modern American history. This occurred in Canada in opposition to the Harper government and peaked with election of 4 November 2015. The closest recent parallel in American history was the opposition of the “atomic scientists” to nuclear weapons, which generalized only partially to a broader movement for world peace and responsible use of science. The grass-roots team that organized the March did not design it as a partisan undertaking. From its inception the March emphasized acceptance and support of science as a way of knowing and opposed the marginalization of science in society in general as well as political discourse.

The key issue that animated the March was the perception that science represented the observation of objective truth and should be respected for representing the real world and serving as a more reliable guide to analysis and action than faith and personal belief. Questioning science makes it stronger. Rejecting science is to cut the chain to an anchor in reality. To deny the role of science in public policy is to unmooring the leadership of a country from reality, and so to allow articles of faith, prejudice, personal belief, impulse, and propaganda to shape the decisions that will affect future generations. It is to admit the primacy of every value but the value of verifiable truth. All of this may not fit on a demonstrator’s placard or make for an easily chanted slogan, but it was the unifying theme of the March, endlessly repeated and restated, and defended from appropriation by the minority that tried to turn the March into an anti-Trump Administration political rally.

In the first weeks there was reluctance and even resistance to scientists taking a united stand. There was fear that the March would be seen as self-serving and crossing a line of neutrality or lack of objectivity. Many scientists and engineers were initially reluctant on the grounds that science should be “above politics”, that science has no bearing on political values, and that “science should not be political”.

However, science is inherently political in its implications, although not partisan in practice. It can hardly be otherwise. Science’s paradigms and habits of mind permeate our culture and thinking, its methods are the way we approach problems of public knowledge, and allocation of funds to support it reflect a political agenda (particularly in health and national security). Politics is how society makes decisions, allocates public resources, and acts collectively for the common good. Science constrains politics by placing limits on what can be done, documenting consequences for actions, and opening opportunities where some would prefer boundaries, limits, and scarcity. Scientific research and knowledge is a public good, support for scientific research and education competes with other public goods for public investment and at its most relevant its findings define the outer limits of what is technically feasible and define the tradeoffs that must be weighed or the downside to be expected.

Many scientists and organizations of science regretted that it had become necessary to demonstrate in an overt manner in the defence of science. However, in the current American political regime, science was already politicized and that the only people not participating in the discussions about science were the scientists. Silence by organized science was creating a vacuum that politicians and decision-makers were more than happy to fill with partisan politics and personal belief, and this was leading to an existential threat in support and acceptance for science. Canada went through its own trial of science and the experience is still fresh in Canadian minds.

Some of the circumstances that led to the March were unique to the United States. The March also sought to reaffirm the historic contract between society and science in the United States, under which in the aftermath of World War II the foundation was laid as a principle of federal policy that basic (fundamental) science would be supported for its advantages as a common good for the nation. After two devastating wars in which the United States and its allies, including of course Canada, came close to defeat at the hands of a more scientifically-prepared adversary, leaders in the Executive Branch and in Congress negotiated a permanent support system to ensure American primacy in research for national security, economic innovation and vitality, and improvement in the quality of life, particularly with respect to health.

This negotiated agreement gave rise to the structures of scientific support in this country, including the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. It proved itself with unparalleled success using the model of publicly-supported, investigator-initiated, peer-reviewed, unfettered research with global collaboration and local access through open access to information and encouragement for practical application. Withdrawal of support for scientific research and intervention that interferes with the free exercise of scientific inquiry risk the hard-won advantages and privileges this country has enjoyed for three generations, would sacrifice decades of national investment, and would forgo the numerous economic advantages that our scientific culture of inquiry, innovation, and application has bestowed. The March was the strongest possible reminder of this historic compact and the benefits that it has yielded.

Perhaps the greatest significance of the March for Science and its enduring legacy was that scientists of all fields and interests marched with a common goal as a community, with a level of cohesion and shared concern rarely seen across disciplines in modern times.

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