Grassroots movements are messy, external scrutiny is good, and mistakes are inevitable. But there are learning opportunities too, says Story Sylwester.
Popularity comes with scrutiny, and that’s not always a bad thing. The Facebook group March for Science went viral after its inception on Reddit two months ago, and since then the fledgling movement, comprised of tireless volunteers, has worked to establish central goals and statements worthy of its now-enormous and enthusiastic base (well over 1.5 million supporters across social media platforms as this is written).
Potential supporters have paid close attention to the movement’s progress, and some have taken exception to its treatment of diversity and inclusion, from multiple diversity statement revisions to the more recent appointment of science broadcaster Bill Nye (aka the “science guy) as the first honorary co-chair of the march.
Others have questioned the purpose of the march. These questions triggered discussions about the politicisation of science and the whether the movement’s goals were achievable.
The nature of a grassroots organisation like this is messy; excited volunteers are moved to action by a good cause, and strive in the subsequent weeks or months to commit whatever time they can to build something good. But it’s a full-time job, and as time goes on and the to-do list piles up, organisations often experience volunteer turnover. A movement grown in the public eye will inevitably blunder as it grows and makes decisions. This is not to say that we shouldn’t pay attention to those mistakes and offer critique, but that we should ultimately judge a movement like this by its response to that critique.
Criticism helps organisations to grow and refine their messages, and it appears that organisers of the central March for Science, which takes place in Washington DC, are taking every opportunity to do so.
On March 30, for example, the organisers used an “Ask me Anything” forum, again on Reddit, this time for an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”–a forum interview) to answer questions in real-time from a community of interested participants. In response to one user’s scepticism regarding the potential effectiveness of a march as opposed to other forms of activism, Miles Greb, organiser of Seattle satellite march, replied, “Some say marches are just steam. That may be true. But let us be the steam that moves the wheels.”
Greb’s words reflect the hopeful attitudes of the organisers here in London as well. A march is a demonstration which draws people together in physical space in support of a shared cause. The effects are increased visibility and the reestablishment of feelings of solidarity between and among scientists and the public, and as the British Science Association reports, only 12% of UK adults feel connected to science, which means this movement is sorely overdue.
But a march alone cannot accomplish all of March for Science’s stated goals, as Virginia Schutte explained in her recent Naturejobs blog, but it establishes a base from which activist can grow, and a critique such as Schutte’s is valuable in pointing out directions of growth. In order to ensure that the energy of the March for Science remains strong after the day, we have partnered with the science network Cosmic Shambles to help ensure the march’s legacy.
Diversity in STEM and #marginsci
Like the organisers in DC, here in London we’ve been working to address diversity issues. The recent article in STAT described disagreements in the central DC movement about diversity and inclusion, necessitates a more public statement from our organisational leaders in favour of a more diverse and inclusive science. Some scientists have criticised the efforts to promote diversity within the movement as a distraction, but to those scientists we say: that’s simply not a holistic viewpoint.
Science is exciting. Its history is loaded with influential breakthroughs and individual accomplishments, however, within the detail of those accomplishments lies a substantial problem: the over-representation of certain perspectives at the expense of others. Much like genetic variation is key to species survival, variations in viewpoint are absolutely crucial to the continuation of scientific growth. Because systems of privilege have historically excluded individuals from the scientific community based on race, sexual preference, gender identity, ability, religion, age, and socioeconomic and immigration statuses, it is imperative for the grassroots March for Science movement to foster a diverse and inclusive community.
March for Science London echoes the principles put forth by the DC team, and not only welcomes but encourages all criticism regarding these issues; real inclusion and diversity come from the integration of a multiplicity of voices, and without wide-ranging critique movements are limited to the awareness of the organisers.
After conferring with multiple advisers and drafting an internal training document, London currently is seeking experienced volunteers to help lead inclusion efforts and further educate our team about unconscious bias and other issues. We are currently working with an accessibility advisor who has previously provided consultancy services to the London borough of Ealing to ensure those experiencing mobility issues will not have any problems on the day.
If you or someone you know is interested in advising with any aspect of our diversity principles please send an email to email@example.com.
Sophie Morgan, an organiser of the Bristol March for Science, writes:
“Approaching speakers and spokespeople for the march should be done solely on the merit of their work and the gravitas of their voice. However, we are aware that this gravitas comes from being given a place to speak and so those that have always been given a platform will continue to be given a platform. The March for Science movement, along with the entire scientific community, needs to try and break this cycle. Whereas it is important for the publicising and validation of the event to have well known spokespeople attached, the March for Science Bristol is actively seeking to restore a balance and investing time to try to give a platform to historically underrepresented groups. We are incredibly keen to attract a diverse audience to the march and as volunteers juggling full time jobs we would welcome anyone with concerns to spare their time to help us reach out to these groups and communities to make the march as inclusive as possible.“
Curious about the London March for Science?
On 22 April, marchers will gather at 11am outside the Science Museum on Exhibition Road. It will set off at 12 noon down South Carriage Drive to the rally point in Parliament Square. For more information on the route including accessibility, children’s areas, and facilities, please see the press release on the London March for Science website.
Interested in getting involved?
Story Sylwester is an MSc student in paleopathology, studying the history of disease through skeletal material, at Durham University.