Nicole Forrester recounts and reflects on her experience at the March for Science in Washington D.C.
April 22 began with a drizzly ride on rented bikes through the streets of southeast D.C. to the Washington monument. I was accompanied by Dylan Jones, an outdoor recreation and environmental writer from West Virginia. “I typically opt for escaping civilization on Earth Day,” Jones said, “but today I decided to go straight into the heart of it.” We weaved through roads littered with people in rain shells and lab coats, carrying vibrant signs and rainbow umbrellas.
As we approached the National Mall, it became more difficult to navigate the crowds and find a place to return our rental bikes. Our pedaling must have drawn attention because another biker, Dr. Rebecca Callahan, soon joined our ranks. After finding a spot to park, we walked to the event discussing our experiences in academic science. She earned a PhD in materials chemistry, then worked as an adjunct professor (and as a bike messenger in her spare time) at Maryville College and recently started a post-doc position in neuroscience at Washington University.
As we neared the entrance, I was struck by a colorful tapestry of a butterfly and the statement, “Kids R the future, U. O. us a livable planet.” The butterfly was adorned in students’ signatures and thoughts about climate change. I was tempted to stay and read the students’ comments, but the speeches had started and the security line was already wrapped around the block. While waiting in line, we laughed at all the creative and pun-filled signs. The woman next to me held a sign featuring two bald eagles. I mentioned that the D.C. Eagle Cam was a favorite in my stepmom’s kindergarten classroom. As a 5th grade teacher in Michigan, she completely understood — an osprey pair nests right outside of her classroom; her students have been monitoring them for the past five years.
When we got in, we joined my family and a quieter crowd, busy listening to speeches from biologists, engineers, environmentalists, and musicians. They spoke about the value of science and the contributions science has made to society. They emphasized the threats of climate change, alternative facts, and policies that reduce funding and restrict access to scientific research.
Amidst the speeches, people were engaged in conversations about where they were from and how science had impacted their lives. I met a lawyer that ensures companies in Washington D.C. uphold environmental, health, and safety regulations. I also met Dr. Allison Snow, a professor at Ohio State University. She was dressed as an astronaut and carried a sign saying, “I am the greatest botanist on this planet!!” referring to The Martian. We were soon joined by other botanically minded marchers, including Dr. Chris Martine, a professor at Bucknell University, as well as other graduate students and environmentalists.
By 2pm, nearly everyone was wet, cold, and ready to march. The march started at the Washington monument and proceeded down Constitution Avenue to the Capitol. Kids were perched on parents’ shoulders and pulled along in wagons. Retired women and men proudly hiked with trekking poles. People were dressed as dinosaurs, astronauts, and a few in blue dresses decorated with planets, flowers, and stuffed toy chameleons. “Are you Ms. Frizzle?” I asked, referring to the quirky elementary school teacher from television show, The Magic School Bus. “Yes!” I got back, “I’m so amazed that I found an anatomically correct chameleon!”
Although the crowd was diverse in age, occupation, and attire, perhaps the greatest diversity was in the signs. Many focused on climate change: “I stand for what I stand on,” “There is no planet B,” and “I stand with her,” with an arrow pointing to Earth. Others advocated for the scientific process and fact-based policies: “Ask for evidence,” “Science not silence,” and “Trust scientific facts, not alternative facts.” Many spoke about the contributions science has made to human health and technology. Several criticized the Trump administration, while others acknowledged that science is not a partisan issue: “Not red or blue, only green.” Many marchers promoted inclusion and diversity, “Science is for everyone” and “Powered by science, strengthened by diversity.”
These signs were accompanied by chants and cheers that became progressively louder as we approached the Capitol. Police were present along the route, well hidden among the crowd. Although several groups attended to promote other causes, the overwhelming majority of marchers were there for science and only science. Once we arrived at the Capitol, the group scattered across the lawn and organizers thanked everyone for attending and encouraged continued action within our local communities. As the marchers departed, I walked back through the streets of D.C., fueled with motivation and contemplative about the impacts of the march.
Overall, the march allowed people from across the country to unite over a common cause — to support science. For me, the event provided a strong sense of community, while fostering motivation for continued action. “Being there, even though it was rainy, with the Washington monument towering over us, felt really special,” says Snow, “people who were there will never forget that experience and be very inspired by it.” Snow will be returning to Washington D.C. on April 29 for the People’s Climate March, along with a new outfit and sign.
Beyond the experience of the march, two main messages resonated with me. The first is that science is not a stand-alone issue, but embedded within a suite of other challenges. On a broad scale the march was for science, but marchers’ motivations were more nuanced. They ranged from climate change and clean energy, to jobs, technology, and human health. More fundamental issues of diversity, inclusion, and the support of public goods were also topics of the day. Science is essential for addressing these global challenges, but it will also benefit from engaging with a broader community and incorporating more diverse perspectives into the scientific process.
The second message is that while many of us are scientists, we are not only scientists. The march was less about advocating for funding to support our own research than about showing up as informed, engaged citizens that value science. “We have this tendency to feel like we don’t want to be political as scientists, but as a human, I am,” Callahan says. The March for Science was about choosing to forego the lab to be present in a moment of political challenges. It was choosing to be a representative for science, engage with a broader community, and stand up for the importance of science for society and the planet.
Nicole Forrester is a PhD student studying plant evolutionary ecology at the University of Pittsburgh.