ASHINGTON — Perhaps it was fitting that it poured rain on the March for Science here.
The rallies and marches Saturday — with hundreds of thousands of people attending events around the world — served as a turning point for scientists, when many of them left the sterility of their labs and entered the muck that is politics.
The overwhelming sentiment was that science is under attack, and they could no longer afford to try to float above it all. Scientists had to engage and take their demands to political leaders and policymakers, so they stood for hours on a sodden National Mall here and then marched through puddles to Capitol Hill.
Here are STAT’s seven takeaways from the march, with views from reporters from around the country.
Can a science march be nonpartisan? Well, no.
Organizers had tried to frame the march as a political, yet nonpartisan, event. That turned out to be wishful thinking. Perhaps it was inevitable, given that it was inspired largely by President Trump’s election, and that marchers were pushing back against an administration that has denied climate change, questioned the benefits of vaccines, and proposed cutting funding for scientific research. But critics of the march who worried that it could turn scientists into an interest group to be isolated and ignored will likely feel their concerns validated after the event.
At the rally in Washington, even people who were holding explicitly anti-Trump signs argued that it was Republicans who had politicized science with their positions, and they were only responding in turn. But as the event went on, many of the official speakers attacked the administration and congressional Republicans (although typically without naming names), building up boos from the crowd, and inciting an us-against-them feeling. Whether that will backfire on the scientific community remains an open question.
Trump the threat
Trump loomed over the event. While the president — who was in Washington this weekend — did not make mention of the march in his Earth Day statement, many speakers at the rally here pointed to the White House and warned of what they view as anti-science policies, particularly in relation to climate change and the environment. Many signs targeted the president, some humorously (including at least one pointing out that science has helped Trump keep his hair) and others with more vitriol (calls for impeachment, use of profanity, etc.).
All of that amounted to a message of resistance — the need for enduring defiance in the face of what participants see as an anti-science administration. There was little sense, at least from the speakers, that they see grounds for compromise or cooperation with the administration. To them, science is on the ropes, and they needed to fight back.
Diversity: Well, they tried
The organizers had to fend off questions about inclusivity in the months leading up to the event, but they clearly made an effort with the speaker lineup. There were scientists and science advocates who were immigrants, trans, gay, Native American, black, Latino, young, and old. Many of them highlighted their identities — a mother, a woman, and a scientist, for example — each time drawing cheers from the audience.
But that audience itself was largely white. That speaks to the challenge for the field of science generally: How can it feel more welcoming to people of all races and walks of life? Some minority scientists at the event said that the lack of diversity in the field motivated them to attend to the march, to show others — and future generations — that they had a place here.
The Los Angeles crowd appeared to be more diverse, with many Latinos and Asian-Americans in addition to whites. But still, there were still very few black faces in the crowd.
The no-shows: biotech and pharma
Biotech and pharma companies have been tiptoeing around the Trump administration, worried about proposals to regulate drug prices. But companies that are now marketing their “bold” work in scientific discovery and developing new treatments largely lacked an official presence at the marches. There was some action in the Boston area, and Google spinoff Verily Life Sciences donated some funding to the San Francisco march. It’s also likely that many company scientists were marching as private citizens and not flagging their corporate affiliations. Still, their absence felt all the more notable when one speaker in Washington started attacking pharma companies for drug prices, portraying them as enemies of the broader scientific community.
Come on, a March for Science? Seriously?
Every so often, a march attendee would turn to a friend and ask, essentially, “Are we seriously having to demonstrate for this?” It did, in a way, seem unusual to have to rally in support of policymaking based on rigorous study and data, not beliefs and impulses. And yet there they were, the thousands who felt like that seemingly rational notion is being disregarded.
Scientists should let their hair down
For all the handwringing about the politicization of the march, it turned out to be a jubilant — and unprecedented — appreciation of science, how research has made our lives what they are, and the simple joy of discovery. And people seemed to be having a lot of fun. There were lots of kids, dogs, and people dressed as dinosaurs. From blistering-hot Los Angeles to rainy Washington, hundreds of thousands of people reveled with jokes about nerd pride, signs with witty science puns, and plenty of off-rhythm dancing to funk bands. Maybe scientists should get out more.
Speakers reiterated that point, urging scientists to think beyond their labs and speak up in their communities about the importance of science. Cut the jargon and demonstrate the value that their work provides, the speakers pleaded. Only then will regular citizens — and then hopefully policymakers —appreciate science in the way it was appreciated at the rallies.
One of the most moving moments of the Washington event came when Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who helped expose the lead crisis in Flint, Mich., took to the stage. She said she was attacked when she started to speak out about the crisis, but that it was the right thing to do because a policy based on money and not scientific evidence wound up hurting the community. It was an urgent entreaty to other experts to speak up.
Hanna-Attisha then brought out 9-year-old Mari Copeny, known as Little Miss Flint. Copeny described how governments in Michigan had rejected science, and that in turn hurt kids like her. Leaders needed to embrace science to protect kids. As she put it simply: “I believe in science.”
What happens next
This is the big issue: Will the march make a difference? Or will it end up as a historical footnote?
Organizers are already trying to figure out how to capitalize on their momentum. They held meetings Sunday and were set for a “week of action” to keep the ball rolling.
“The march accomplished this really big and important thing that we haven’t seen in my lifetime — in half a century, at least,” said Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a lead sponsor of the event. “So now we go, OK, what are we going to do with this energy?”
At the rallies and marches, there was general advice given: call your representatives, don’t forget to get involved on the local level, maybe even run for office yourself. But can that spirit endure? Or will scientists simply float back into the daily grind of their labs?
Lev Facher and Kate Sheridan contributed reporting from Washington, Usha Lee McFarling from Los Angeles, and Charles Piller from San Francisco.