The media seized on “nerdy signs,” celebrity appearances and interviews with working scientists and commentators to demonstrate that the March for Science had firmly engaged the public, says David Payne.
A sighting of Doctor Who actor Peter Capaldi “marching alongside physicists, astronomers and biologists” at the London march on 22 April proved irresistible to Daily Mail headline writers, who wrote: ‘”What do we want? Evidence-based policy. When do we want it? After peer review: Boffins’ VERY academic chant as Doctor Who joins thousands protesting against Brexit during global March for Science.”
Capaldi, the newspaper noted, had also joined the London Women’s March on 21 January. This was another global protest movement triggered by the election of US president Donald Trump.
March for Science began as a community initiative in Washington DC, triggered by online discussions about Trump’s election. It quickly mushroomed into more than 600 satellite marches across the world. Organisers estimate that 12,000 marchers participated in the London event.
Time zones meant Wellington and Auckland staged some of the first marches on 23 April. Sean Hendy, a physics professor at the University of Auckland and director of research institute Te Punaha Matatini, argued that New Zealanders should care about what Trump does to science on the other side of the world.
Explaining his decision to join the march in online magazine The Spinoff, Hendy said: “When science takes a hit in the United States, it suffers in New Zealand too. The US cut its geothermal research programme in the late 1980s, and as a result, New Zealand’s geothermal capability almost collapsed, making it much harder for us to increase our geothermal energy generation right up to the present day. Trump’s cuts to climate change research, in which the US leads the world, will hurt the rest of the world’s climate scientists, harming us all in the long run.”
Despite this, Hendy was at pains to point out that he wouldn’t be joining the march to protect scientists’ jobs, noting that sacked geothermal scientists mostly found jobs in industry. “When funding is cut and jobs are lost, it is not great for science, but life for scientists generally works out OK. Few professions claim the high ground to the extent that science does. Scientists are often reluctant to acknowledge this, but a glance around most scientific tea rooms will generally leave you with an eyeful of the pale, the stale, and the male.”
In a post for academic blogging platform The Conversation, Australian Nobel prizewinner Peter Doherty said Trump’s proposed budget cuts and Brexit would have implications for Australians. Doherty, laureate professor at the Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, said in advance of the Melbourne march: “The science culture is international and everyone benefits from progress made anywhere.”
In Canada, the Toronto-based Globe and Mail described scientists as divided over the march, interviewing Jason Dumelie, a Canadian researcher based at the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences in New York.
“Canadians benefit from US research almost as much as they benefit from Canadian research,” argued Dumelie. John Polanyi, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist and professor at the University of Toronto, added: “Would any historian have predicted that in the 21st century we would need to agitate on behalf of science? We live our lives in total dependency on the fruits of science – for food, health, transportation and communication.”
Akshat Rathi, a journalist and chemistry PhD writing on The Quartz website, said researchers may have brushed off complaints about “boffins in the ivory tower spending millions on wasteful endeavours.” The march gives scientists the chance to “re-make the case for taxpayer-funded research” and start a conversation about why separating politics and science is difficult.
“You may not like the reason why the stereotype for a scientist is a nerdy, shy person in a lab coat, but the only way to overcome it is to let them see you, dear scientists, who likely doesn’t fit that stereotype.”
Science writer David Levitan told scientists in a piece written for The Guardian that researchers who marched weren’t necessarily taking a political side but “literally aligning with reason and truth and evidence over denial and magical thinking.” Levitan concluded: “It is absurd to claim that politics and science can forever stand separately, staring at each other from across the room, but it is just as absurd to claim that by joining this movement any scientist or citizen is permanently sullied as partisan or lacking in objectivity.”
- Why we joined the March for Science
- Revenge of the nerds: Scientists outdo one another across the country with hilarious signs for the March for Science
- Stepping up for hope: What did the March for Science do?
- March for Science: Reflections on a movement
- Why I will not be marching for science
- Development and debate about the March for Science
- Hope in the Dark and the March for Science
David Payne is chief careers editor, Nature.