Scientists Are Arguing About Whether The March For Science Will Be Too Political
Viewing science as under attack, scientists are taking to the streets on Earth Day, April 22. But a heated argument has broken out about whether the march is making science too political — or whether it’s not making science political enough.
The date for the next big march on Washington — the March for Science — is set for April 22, Earth Day.
What’s less clear is what exactly the marchers are marching for. Even as public support promises to make the march the biggest public assembly of scientists to date, many scientists have voiced concern, arguing either that the organizers aren’t doing enough to politicize the march — or that it is potentially fatal to science to politicize it at all.
“Concerns about the new administration's actions within only its first week created a furor among various communities,” Valorie Aquino, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico and one of the original organizers of the event, told BuzzFeed News via email. An order that seemed to gag scientists at the Department of Agriculture, and a freeze on EPA grants, spurred a bonfire of scientific outrage.
“We really tapped into something larger than us, and the message resonates globally,” Aquino said.
The idea for the march was first posited on Jan. 20 on a Reddit thread in response to news that all references to climate change had been deleted from the White House website. Within hours, the group had a Facebook page, and the next day had a couple thousand members. Now, it has over 1.3 million supporters across platforms, and 100 satellite marches set up everywhere from Birmingham to San Francisco to Nashville. On Wednesday, the group announced that the marches will take place on Earth Day, April 22.
But not everyone is happy. On Tuesday, the New York Times ran an op-ed with the headline “A Scientists’ March on Washington Is a Bad Idea,” by geologist Robert Young. Young, whose work studying the effects of rising sea levels on coastlines led to him being targeted as a political operative, argued that he had felt the effects of the politicization of science firsthand. “There is no question that the proposed March for Science will make my job more difficult and increase polarization,” Young wrote.
On Wednesday, the organizers made their first public statements about their intent for the march: “Yes, this is a protest, but it’s not a political protest,” lead organizer Jonathan Berman, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, told the New York Times. “The people making decisions are in Washington, and they are the people we are trying to reach with the message: You should listen to evidence.”
Even still, Aquino, when asked about debates over how political the march should be, stated that she was uncomfortable answering the question. “I have my *personal* opinion…but hesitate to speak AS march for science as a whole at this time,” she wrote via email.
“They initially wanted to call it a March on Washington, but then they came out swinging saying we’re going to have this nonpartisan, nonpolitical march,” said Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical physicist at the University of Washington, referring to the historic 1963 march led by civil rights activists. “I’m wondering, why? If you really don’t feel like it’s a partisan issue, why are you having a protest? Or are we having something that mimics a protest, but is actually more akin to what I would call a parade?”
On Thursday, Prescod-Weinstein co-authored a statement with two other scientists calling themselves “Scientists Against a Fascist Establishment” and arguing that it is the “moral duty” of scientists to be political when it comes to issues like the immigrant ban, the environment, and women’s health — all issues that she argues inexorably tie science to politics. Prescod-Weinstein stressed that the fact that she and co-author Sarah Tuttle, an astrophysicist, are Jewish played a big part in why they decided to pen the letter in the first place.
“I think if we look back at history, negotiating with fascists actually doesn’t end well for science,” Prescod-Weinstein said. “It certainly doesn’t end well for scientists at the margins."
For biologist Christina Agapakis, going to the Boston march will only be an option if the organizers are more clear about the fact that science has always been shaped by politics.
“If 300 years of scientists pretending to be apolitical wasn’t enough to convince someone that climate change isn’t a hoax, then erasing political issues from the march isn’t going to change anyone’s mind either,” Agapakis said.
Agapakis added that those who are acting out of concern for federal funding of research are also taking a political stance.
Others argue that while science is inherently political, raising that issue too strongly in the march could be damaging.
“'Science is not political’ is almost like a science aphorism,” said Michael Eisen, a UC Berkeley geneticist who recently announced that he is going to run for a Senate seat in California in 2018. (Eisen is just one of many scientists now running for office as a way to include more scientific thinking in government.) “Since politics deals with science, the idea that science would not deal with politics is just nuts.”
Despite this, Eisen bristled at the idea of a march that was overtly political in its aims, noting that many of the scientists he’s spoken to feel uncomfortable about the march’s political slant.
“I agree, everybody needs to stand up and fight every violation of human rights and democracy and equality that’s coming from the government,” Eisen said. “But I don’t come at that position from my place as a scientist — I come at it from my existence as a human. It can’t be just about that, otherwise it won’t be a march for science, it will be a march against Trump.”
Eisen said he was likely to attend the march, though he wasn’t sure whether he’d be attending in California or DC.
Yet another scientist made clear that he would not be attending the event because it was far too political.
“When you look at some of the things said in support of this march, it sounds very much like dogma,” said William Happer, a Princeton physicist who has met with President Trump and has been floated as his potential science adviser.
To Happer, the march could end up doing more damage than good for science, where more than $30 billion yearly in federal funds pays for most of the nation’s basic research.
“Science has to have the public trust because we’re sucking a hell of a lot of money out of public funds,” he said. “Anything that makes science look a little bit less deserving, it’s likely to affect budgets. So I’m a little bit nervous about that. It’s very clear who has control of the purse strings.”
But Prescod-Weinstein and Agapakis both said scientists need only look back to Einstein for a lesson on why scientists shouldn’t stay silent on politics.
After speaking out publicly against the rise of fascism and leaving Germany for the US in 1933, Einstein wrote a letter to his friend Max von Laue, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who stayed in Germany but refused to pay allegiance to the Nazi regime.
“I do not share your view that the scientist should observe silence in political matters,” wrote Einstein. “The situation in Germany shows whither this restraint will lead: to the surrender of leadership, without any resistance, to those who are blind or irresponsible.”
Prescod-Weinstein's group is called “Scientists Against A Fascist Establishment." A previous version of this article called the group "Scientists Against A Fascist Government."