WASHINGTON — After months of planning, and amid growing concern over the US commitment to science, tens of thousands of researchers, activists, and others descended on the capital on Saturday for what was billed as a historic march in the name of science.
In countries across the world, science advocates rallied in hundreds of satellite marches, kicking off in New Zealand and picking up with events staged across the Eastern Hemisphere. In Western Europe, there were an estimated 20 marches planned in Germany, 15 in France, eight in Italy, and five in England.
And by the close of the day, those involved in the march’s planning were calling the event a success.
“Even before the march started, I was calling it a victory because so many scientists and friends of science said, we should be in the public square. That’s amazing,” said Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of the march’s most prominent sponsors.
“The march accomplished this really big and important thing that we haven’t seen in my lifetime — in half a century, at least. So now we go, OK, what are we going to do with this energy?” Holt said.
Organizers and partners — including AAAS — will continue to hash out concrete actions to capitalize the march’s momentum in large meetings on Sunday, Holt said.
The events across more than 600 cities had individual flavor but a resounding sameness in their message. Environmental concerns dominated, both among the crowds and among the many speakers throughout the day. Many marchers said they were there to protest President Trump directly. And much talk was dedicated to how scientists could better carry their message forth to the public, and to lawmakers.
“Let me tell you, to my scientist friends who are still working in the laboratories doing fantastic work — it’s about time that we come out and stand up,” said Emmitt Jolly, a biology professor at Case Western Reserve University who attended the march in Cleveland. “It is our responsibility to be able to come and teach science to the world. We made a mistake. We have done great work, but we haven’t shared this.”
In Washington, the keynote speakers included Bill Nye, the popular science educator; Holt, the CEO of the AAAS; and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who helped expose dangerous levels of lead in the water in Flint, Mich.
Since the beginning of the planning process, the March for Science has been plagued by controversy, including over its mission. A number of members of the march’s diversity and inclusion committee publicly resigned after disagreements over whether and how to address disparities in science. Others questioned the need for a march at all.
While diversity concerns kept some away, it was reason for others to travel to Washington, including Marie Perkins and Katrina Herrera, graduate students at Duke University.
Surveying the crowd, Perkins, who is in a chemistry program, said, “there’s not very many black scientists walking around, so it’s important for us to show up.”
Perkins and Herrera, who were wearing T-shirts that said “Black scientists’ lives matter,” said there were only a few black students in their programs. They hoped that by coming to the march, they could demonstrate that there is a future in science to others.
“I want to show young black girls they can be scientists,” said Herrera, who is in an environmental science program.
Kelly Farley, a first grade teacher in Virginia Beach, Va., said this week her class read “The Lorax” and talked about recycling. She mostly avoids politics with her students, but she did tell them that she was going to a march for Earth Day.
“Besides voting, public protests are one of the most patriotic things they can do,” said Farley, who was at the event with her fiance, Ricky Harris, an environmental scientist.
It was also increasingly clear that maintaining the march’s stated pro-science, nonpartisan stance was difficult. Many of the slogans on attendees’ signs and shirts played off phrases associated with Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign — “I’m with Her,” with an arrow pointing to the Earth — or President Trump’s own campaign pledge to “Make America Great Again.”
When the Science Advisory Board conducted a survey of more than 900 industry and academic scientists, 70 percent agreed that Trump’s administration was an “American government that ignores science to pursue ideological agendas” — a statement on an early version of the march’s own website, which has since been removed. (Only 30 percent of the respondents to that survey said they were planning on attending the march.)
However, the organizers tried to keep the event free of partisan politics. Speakers at the Washington event have been provided with guidelines for their remarks. One speaker, Lydia Villa-Komaroff, said on a call with reporters that she and other speakers have been specifically asked not to make personal or partisan attacks but instead “to speak about those things that we care deeply about.”
Hundreds of organizations partnered with the march, including several scientific heavyweights. AAAS was among the first to sign on as a partner in late February; the Society for Neuroscience followed in early March. Recent endorsements have come from the American Public Health Association and over 20 physicians’ associations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Physicians, and the American College of Surgeons.
Dozens of environmental groups have also partnered with the march, in part because the event was held on Earth Day. The Earth Day Network is the official co-host of the March for Science in Washington, and seems to have handled most of the logistics for that event, including permitting and media credentialing.
Andrew Joseph in Washington and Casey Ross in Cleveland contributed reporting.