On Saturday, at 4 a.m., I hopped on a bus from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., to march for science.
I was soaked and freezing within five minutes of arrival, and for five hours, without a poncho, I stood soggy and bedraggled, shielding my laptop from the light mist that eventually turned into a downpour.
But it didn’t matter.
I marched because science underpins our daily lives — from the engine that drove us to the march to the safety of the food I ate and water I drank on Saturday to the internet that gets this column to you. And, of course, because of the vaccines and antibiotics that gave me the health and stamina to march for five hours in a crowd, in the rain, without worrying that getting sick might kill me.
I marched for the future of our country, because we need the technology and innovations that come from federally funded research to create “a more perfect union,” a country where people are healthier and more informed to make the best decisions for their lives. I marched for the work of science — open access to data, scientists’ freedom to talk about their research, and the collaboration and diplomacy that my friends who are immigrant scientists bring when they come to the US.
But most of all, I marched for people around the world, because science is global. When the US works on curing disease, it isn’t just for Americans. When we work on increasing the food supply, it’s often for developing nations. And when we study air pollution, water contamination, melting glaciers, and receding shorelines, it’s for the welfare and future of the entire planet.
I wasn’t alone.
Thousands of people stuck out the crap weather in front of a large stage. Under a canopy of umbrellas I felt like I was part of something big and important. I was near the back, and a sea of children and adults in front of me really drove home that science is not just for the present, but the future as well. I’m a first-year PhD student at the University of Pittsburgh, and as I rode out the worst of the storm with these folks, we bonded over what science means to us.
Each successive speaker on the stage gave voice to our desires: evidence-based policy, continued federal funding, and objective scientific truth informing the policies that govern our lives.
In a crowd of people that included scientists with incredibly diverse personal and research backgrounds, the marchers were unified by a singular passion in a way I’ve never experienced. I was energized by meeting scientists of different stripes in a way I don’t always get to. It’s rare, and maybe it shouldn’t be, for structural biologists like myself to be walking and talking with geologists and meteorologists and marine biologists, and people who think that what we do is important and worthwhile.
However, while the organizers said the march would be nonpartisan, official speakers made statements to the contrary — science is objective but not neutral, and science is political because it makes policy changes necessary. Every anti-Trump sign I saw made it clear what side of the political spectrum marchers fell on, even if it wasn’t clear whether the sign holder was a scientist or an activist, or both.
Around 2 p.m., as the rain continued to fall, we lined up to march. Sheer numbers made it hard for this to move quickly, and it was close to 3 p.m. before I actually marched. I didn’t have time to make a sign on my own — I was writing a practice grant up to the moment we left, but I commandeered one from a friend.
On the edges of the march route, counter-protesters waved a handful of signs on tall posts that talked about religion and faith.
No one bothered them, but we didn’t welcome them into what was supposed to be a unified, nonpartisan march. Walking among anti-Trump signs, and signs that talked about evidence-based policy, I wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t exactly happy, either. I know people who believe what those signs said. I wish we could have found common ground.
There were about 60 people on my bus from Pittsburgh, and even though some of them were my friends, I also had friends who chose not to march, because of politics, because science is supposed to be neutral, and, frankly, because they had to work on Saturday. Research doesn’t care about weekends.
The outcome of the march, then, is certainly that the world knows what scientists stand for. However, I think this knowledge benefits the scientific community itself more than the relationship between people who see evidence as fact and people who don’t. While I think scientists are leaving the march organized, exhilarated, and unified, people who disagree politically with the tenets of the march weren’t really given anything to sway their thinking.
As I got on the bus at 5 p.m. on Saturday, for the four-hour drive back to Pittsburgh, a warm shower, and some sleep before heading back to work on Sunday, I was hopeful. I’m hoping to preserve and share the energized unity of the march with my colleagues. The organizers have a week of action planned, but back in the lab, with experiments to run and classes to attend, I’m still trying to figure out how I personally am going to my part.
Scientists aren’t all blue, scientists aren’t all red, and neither are our friends and family. Science isn’t partisan — the zebrafish whose genes I’m trying to turn on and off with light don’t care who I voted for. Neither does any breakthrough that comes from it.
But how we use my findings could be. This is why I marched. I want you to reap the rewards of the work I’m doing, because I’m doing it for you, for me, and for future generations.
Sara Whitlock is a first-year graduate student studying structural biology at the University of Pittsburgh. Her column, Under the Microscope, can be found here.