This Saturday, April 22, thousands of people are expected to participate in the March for Science, a high-profile event to showcase support for the idea of science. Some of them will take part in the grand march in Washington, D.C. Others will march in cities across the country. Although the underlying themes that celebrate the value of science are well-intentioned, I think that the march is a bad idea. It threatens to undermine the objective nature of scientific research that is so critical to its integrity. I say this as a postdoctoral researcher who has committed the better part of the last 15 years to science. I say it as a scientist who believes that politics has no place at the lab bench.
And there’s no denying this march is political. It is a mistake to position the scientific method against the Trump administration or any other one, for that matter. That would serve only to undermine a central premise of the march: that scientific knowledge is apolitical. Organizers argue that the march is “nonpartisan.” While this may be the official line, I’m skeptical of whether anything approaching it can actually be achieved, especially on the heels of a divisive election. For example, I recently spoke with a colleague who was organizing a poster-making session for the march. She proudly described her design as an “I’m With Her” arrow pointing toward planet Earth.
I was also “with her” last November, but that should be beside the point. I fear that, contrary to its mission of inclusion, the march may actually alienate many of those it seeks to convince. Scientists are highly educated, the academic version of the 1 percent Wall Street class. They are also overwhelming Democratic. I can assure you that this has little to no impact on their science or for the potential public impact of their findings. But it would not be unreasonable for a rural blue-collar worker, watching the marches from afar, to perceive them as yet another attack from the condescending elite. We cannot drum up the broad support for science that the march seeks by aggravating a deep divide already present in this country.
I have also heard the argument that we must speak out for science because truth and science are under attack, and that everyone knows the loudest voice in the room gets the most attention. But the truth is always under attack. Two glaring examples are genetically modified food and vaccines, which scientists overwhelming agree are safe. It makes sense to speak out about such issues, but it would have made sense to do so years ago, too.
Ultimately, the problem with the March for Science is its scope. To be sure, it can be reasonable and helpful to rally for scientific funding, which is appropriated by Congress and therefore inherently political. A bright spot is that there is fairly strong bipartisan backing for funding the National Institutes of Health and other organizations that support science. Like many of those who will march, I believe in the power of objective, evidence-based scientific knowledge — knowledge that I would like to see inform public policy. But a march for the very idea of science is counterproductive, unnecessarily pushing scientific research directly into one of the most tense and polarized political climates in recent years. Rather than forcing politicians to accept science, it is entirely possible that the march will do nothing more than provide them with an escape hatch, a justification for the idea that science is in some way biased.
I won’t be marching. I’m actually scheduled to teach an undergraduate cell biology course that morning instead. The topic is stem cells, those special cells with unlimited potential to become any cell in the body. Biologists refer to these stem cells as pluripotent, unfixed in their developmental choices and poised at the edge of the known and unknown. It’s an apt metaphor for the promise and power of science itself. Perhaps it can even be applied to the March for Science.
The excitement and support fueling the March for Science is encouraging, but it would be a shame to waste all of that potential on yet another partisan political fight.
Arthur W. Lambert, PhD, is a postdoctoral researcher at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Whitehead Institute.