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.
I’m a scientist. I don’t think the march is the most productive way to send a non-partisan message to get people on board with supporting science. However, the march is happening whether or not I go and I will march for two reasons: 1) What message would we be sending if few people were to show for the march? 2) By not participating and staying silent, scientists forfeit their right to hold a chair at the global table. Similar to one choosing not to vote, non-participation does not relinquish us from blame in the outcome (in fact quite the opposite) and it gives more power to those opposing science to make the decisions.
I don’t think the politics should enter science. But perhaps science should enter politics. We should start making politically decisions based on the scientific method. We should run small pilot tests for new policies to,see howmtheynworkmbefore implementing them at large. We should apply Occam’s Razor to the plethora of confusing legislation and seek the best simplest solutions. There are a lot of ways science can influence the way we run our political system for the better. But to do this scientists must gain the trust and attention of politicians. Hopefully the march will further this cause.
I completely understand and agree with the worry that this might come across as scientists being part of the “liberal elite” and therefore further divisions between scientists and non-scientists. However, the March for Science is happening whether or not you and I march. It seems that rather than boycotting the march, it might be more productive for those of us who are worried to attend the march and make clearly non-partisan signs or to encourage people we know who are not scientists to march with us. Your article along with this article (http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2017/mixed-emotions-march-science-consequences-getting-wrong/) really got me thinking about this. The author of this other article has a similar worry, but a different solution.
While I respect your right to an opinion, I think you are misguided. The reason for the march is a-political, but it is very relevant to the current administration. It is not about republicans or democrats, it is about an administration that appoints people with no qualifications for their jobs who have refuted scientific fact as differing opinions. Science is not about opinion – and the march is about supporting those who believe that opinion is not science.
” and the march is about supporting those who believe that opinion is not science.”
That, sir, is political.
I think you’re missing the point doctor.
It’s not a march for science, it is a march for partisan politics. All you have to do is read the comments from those who claim to be attending for evidence.
Sadly, wodun, only one party has decided to mount a full assault on science funding and findings in an effort to achieve preferred policy outcomes. If you wish this to be nonpartisan, speak out and tell your party’s leaders to not put ignoramuses in charge of science issues.
You certainly have the right not to march, but I have never considered this march to be one of the “elite”. This march is about the importance of facts, about teaching my children the importance of thinking critically, of protecting the environment, and standing up to an administration who has put, and urges others to put, “beliefs” and prejudice above available facts and data.
Hello Dr. Lambert,
I will be marching in support of science tomorrow morning in the District, just so that you know my bias ahead of time ;). It says in your article that funding for the NIH and other organizations has bipartisan support; why, then, does the proposed budget include sweeping cuts to the NIH, NSF, EPA, USGS, NOAA and dozens of other massively important scientific efforts? I agree that science should not be political, with the operative phrase being “should”. It seems that your argument is for us to put our noses to the lab bench and ignore what is going outside the pressurized comfort of our BSL-2 work spaces. Science has become political, whether we like it or not (and to be clear, I certainly do not like it). The reality of climate change has ceased to be seen as a scientific fact; instead, politicians frame it as a partisan opinion. Other examples, like those mentioned in your piece, are in similarly non-scientific positions. We cannot continue to silently allow the misrepresentation of empirical facts for the purposes of political gain.
Go Ashley, it’s all about having a commodity available to exploit by the big oil special interests and an administration wanting to keep the gravy train rolling… be dammed Earth, we will drain you dry, Greed is good. Science is providing better alternatives.
The writer certainly has the right to sit this out. But to do so you need to believe: 1) scientists aren’t citizens and don’t possess the same basic First Amendment rights as other citizens; 2) the cost of “rocking the boat” is greater than remaining silent (it’s not); 3) you won’t regret inaction when funding cuts put you out of a job. If you believe these things, by all means – sit it out.
I’m not sure I can pull a coherent argument out of this article. So… science has a lot to do with government policy, and scientists have rights, and their work has merit… but scientists shouldn’t express their opinions through legal means because others might think they’re elitist?
This is absurd. If the argument against expressing your opinion publicly and forcefully is that people might disagree, you are simply discrediting your own opinion. Its a shame that a clearly very intelligent person lacks this basic conviction in their own beliefs.
And, in the end, the point is: if we’re talking and discussing about our ideas on how we should “interact”, as scientists, with the rest of the world… it means that, in the end, we cannot be so “pure” and pretend to do what we do for Science’s sake.
And, IMVHO, the fact we’re discussing a lot about pros/cons of the March and about our relationship with society means that the March is becoming effective, at least among us 🙂
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