It may be the largest rally in support of science ever. Hundreds of thousands of people have joined the Facebook group for the upcoming March for Science, and tens of thousands have offered to volunteer. Beyond a march in Washington, more than 400 cities worldwide will host simultaneous events on April 22 to repudiate science policies of the new White House and Congress.
Yet for all the excitement, STAT has found, plans for the march are plagued by infighting among organizers, attacks from outside scientists who don’t feel their interests are fairly represented, and operational disputes. Tensions have become so pronounced that some organizers have quit and many scientists have pledged not to attend.
What was billed as science advocates speaking with a unified voice, then, has instead surfaced long-lingering tensions within the scientific community.
Rachel Holloway, a clinical psychologist who chairs the event’s diversity and inclusion committee, conceded that initially the group was overwhelmed by scientists and activists clamoring for a spot at the table. It was “like trying to drink water out of a fire hose,” she said.
Things have settled down since January, and organizers have begun to address members’ concerns. But many are not satisfied.
Jacquelyn Gill, a biology and ecology professor at the University of Maine, told STAT that she quit the organizing committee in recent weeks because of leaders’ resistance to aggressively addressing inequalities — including race and gender.
“We were really in this position where, because the march failed to actively address those structural inequalities within its own organization and then to effectively communicate those values outward, we carried those inequalities forward,” Gill said. “Some of these problems stem from the march leadership failing early on in its messaging.”
At the heart of the disagreements are conflicting philosophies over the march’s purpose. In one corner are those who assert that the event should solely promote science itself: funding, evidence-based policies, and international partnerships.
In another are those who argue that the march should also bring attention to broader challenges scientists face, including issues of racial diversity in science, women’s equality, and immigration policy.
But at the senior levels of march planning, officials say they are concerned about such splintering of the march’s message — even as they combat their own disagreements over what this historic event is meant to accomplish.
A divisive diversity policy
The event’s official diversity policy, posted just days after the march was announced in January, has undergone repeated revisions, and is now in its fourth version.
The latest, as Wednesday, read: “We acknowledge that society and scientific institutions often fail to include and value the contributions of scientists from underrepresented groups. … We better serve everyone when we affirm that the labors and achievements of underrepresented communities are foundational to the creation and maintenance of our democracy; engage in difficult conversations; and sustain an open scientific community that celebrates, respects, and includes people from diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives.”
The statement was designed to be an evolving document, Holloway said, but the massive early interest led to a level of scrutiny the march’s organizers didn’t expect.
It was rewritten and expanded in late January, and tweaked again in February to add language about disability and inclusiveness. The official Twitter account said that these changes were in response to “feedback” and “complaints” about the policy.
And in the echo chamber of social media, the feedback itself spurred feedback — some of it personal in nature.
For instance, Stephani Page, who has a doctorate in biophysics and biochemistry, tweeted in February that some people critiquing the March for Science online were becoming targets of harassment. Organizers recently added an anti-harassment statement to the website, and Page is now a member of the steering committee.
“I wasn’t about to join something just to be a face or a Band-Aid,” Page said. She joined the committee in large part because she wanted to change the culture of science — “I was not going to carry the banner of an institution [of science] that continues to treat me as if I don’t belong there.”
In its short life, the organization has drawn a big social media following — but has also made some high-profile communications missteps.
Many, though not all, of the march’s organizers are newcomers to the world of political activism, and people both inside and outside the group say the leadership has been hesitant to seek help from communications professionals.
And keeping a unified message is even harder when each city’s sister march has its own Twitter account and planning committee.
For instance, Australian-based sociologist Zuleyka Zevallos, in an email to STAT, pointed to what she called “racist dog-whistling” by the Los Angeles march chapter in a Twitter post that was since deleted: “some scientists [are] concerned with the march turning into [a] political event and losing its focus. What do YOU pledge to do to keep it peaceful?”
The leap from “political” to “violent” did not sit well with some minority science advocates.
The march’s social media has been accused of being insensitive on gender issues as well. A tweet answer to an innocuous question about bathroom facilities at the march used the hashtag #GirlsCanBeScientistsToo with a winky face. In late February, Twitter users were dismayed at how the march’s Twitter account referred to women in engineering as “ladies” and “females” and asked why they thought a gender gap existed, when a huge body of research has shed light on that issue. Days later, the Twitter account stirred ire when it left out Rosalind Franklin in a tweet about the discovery of DNA (though Franklin had been mentioned in the tweet immediately before).
Last week, Zevallos published an article about the march’s various diversity problems — a move she made after “close to two months of equity missteps, and many scientists were fed up by having offered their volunteering, advice and resources, only to be ignored,” she said.
Disagreements over how to respond to these complaints have led at least two people within march leadership to quit.
Asked about Gill’s departure, Holloway told STAT that “there has been some push by some people to centralize diversity in a way that diminishes science.”
Holloway stressed that she sees no conflict between emphasizing diversity and science at the event. She sent STAT a list of organizations the Science March has partnered with to help centralize inclusiveness efforts, including 500 Women Scientists, Girls Who Code, and the National Society of Black Physicists.
Much of the disconnect, Holloway said, begins and ends on social media.
“I prefer to take an actions-based approach where we show with our actions that we value diversity,” she said. “The message got around that we don’t value diversity because we weren’t explicitly stating it repeatedly. … Other people who disagreed [with that strategy] left.”
Shane Morris, a Nashville-based web consultant, also left the organizing committee — in his case, because he viewed it as too worried about appeasing diversity demands and not worried enough about its legacy.
While Morris acknowledged that he is not a member of a group traditionally underrepresented in science — he is a white man — he said he hoped issues of access and diversity could be resolved after the march with legislation and concrete actions. “I’m definitely not against talking about equality issues,” he said, “I just felt it was an inappropriate forum.” He would have preferred to see the march building up toward a lobbying effort to pass legislation that could address these and other issues after the march, he said. “I think that the [organizers] saw the march as the result.”
“If you’re not interested in passing policy, then why are we walking around?” he said. He left after less than a week on the committee.
Others in the scientific community have expressed concerns about the march’s message becoming watered down. When, for instance, the diversity page was briefly removed from the march’s website in January, prominent Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker tweeted that he was “glad to see that the March for Science Web site has removed the distractions.” Pinker had previously described the march as “anti-science” for its left-wing political tone.
In early February, an unofficial poll posted by one Reddit user in the site’s March on Science forum found that a majority of respondents said they wouldn’t participate in the march if organizers emphasized social justice issues. Several threads on the march’s Reddit community explicitly criticize the march for what they call “scope creep.”
“I really do want the science march to succeed,” Morris said, “and it’s unfortunate that there is so much turmoil within an organization that is needed more now than any other time I can remember.”
“I don’t think there’s any amount of organization that’s going to fix it at this point.”
Making a difference
Some remain optimistic that the criticisms levied at the march can be at least partially resolved. Jess Shanahan, an astrophysicist by training and a science communicator, has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome — a hereditary disease that can weaken a person’s connective tissues — and has been vocal about the need for organizers to consider how accessible the march is for people with disabilities. For example, she noted, organizers should have enough areas for people to rest if they have difficulty walking or standing for long periods of time and set aside a quiet space for scientists and attendees who have diagnoses on the autism spectrum.
Organizers contacted her earlier this week and invited her to give input to make the march in Washington more accessible.
That overture “really did influence my decision to attend [the march],” she said. “Because if I can make a difference and if I can push for some kind of accessibility — even if it’s something small — then I do want to show up. Because is it enough? Probably not. Is it going to be perfectly accessible? No,” she said. “But I think that we need to work towards positive change, even if it’s a baby step.”
The next big, public test for organizers: the speaker lineup in Washington, D.C. Organizers haven’t yet finalized the list and declined to commit to a date when speakers will be announced. Regardless, many people will likely analyze the list to gauge whether it reflects the diversity of the scientific community at large and whether speakers address some of the key barriers people face to joining scientific professions.
“The issues and criticisms of the march are indicative of problems in STEM as a whole,” Shanahan said, “and that’s why people are drawing attention to it.”
This article has been updated with additional interview material.