More than 220 organizations, representing many leading scientific organizations and academic research powerhouses, are supporting what has grown into a global event with more than 500 satellite marches well beyond the National Mall in Washington, from Greenland and Ghana to India and Chile.
“We can’t simply sit back complacently and assume that everyone understands how valuable science is for the economy, for national security, for environmental sustainability, for human health and the list goes on,” said Eric Davidson, president of the American Geophysical Union, and a biogeochemist by training.
AGU and the American Association for the Advancement of Science are among science organizations that have partnered with the march.
Mobilizing support for scientific research, speaking out on national issues, defending scientific integrity and intellectual freedom certainly are not new activities for the scientific community.
In recent months, groups, including AAAS, have sent letters to Congress outlining the potential ramifications of proposed budget cuts to scientific programs and the potential long-term damage to scientific collaboration of an executive order on immigration – something the federal courts have since delayed.
They have taken stands backing the safety of genetically modified organisms and defending the efficacy of vaccines. AAAS and other groups have repeatedly called on President Donald Trump to appoint a White House science adviser.
Neither is it new for scientific groups to speak out on politically charged issues.
AAAS, for instance, was instrumental in getting the United States to halt the use of defoliant herbicides during the Vietnam War and played a role in the famous 1925 trial known as the “Scopes Monkey Trial” helping defend John Scopes, a substitute biology teacher, who was charged with teachings that violated a Tennessee anti-evolution law.
AAAS arranged expert testimony in support of evolution, adopted resolutions denouncing the charges and helped generate $10,000 for Scope’s legal defense.
Yet, even the word “advocacy” now stirs concern among some scientists leery of politicizing science.
Davidson noted the concerns, but stressed that AGU and other scientific organizations have been actively arranging events, reaching out to members to support the march and taking measures to emphasize “this is a very non-partisan process,” something AAAS CEO Rush Holt also has stressed.
What is needed and perhaps the April 22nd march will facilitate, leaders of the partner organizations readily acknowledge, are ways to communicate more clearly about the relevance of science to everyday life.
While partner organizations have their own fields of expertise, they are united in the view that the scientific community needs to boost its visibility and take advantage of a movement that grew out of a conversation on Reddit to communicate more often and through more venues about what science means to the world around us.
The leaders point to innovations like NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellite, which, despite being designed for another purpose, is able to measure groundwater levels from space and provide data to help avert water shortages, the lifeblood of humankind.
Tracking the complex circulation systems of the world’s oceans has greatly improved maritime navigation and weather prediction, another noted.
Organization leaders also named advances in biomedical research and brain science that are now confronting debilitating diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Lasers were the favorite of one for having emerged from basic research 56 years ago as an admitted “solution without a problem” now powering everything from Blu-ray players and grocery store scanners to medical devices. Fiber optics was cited for no less than transforming the world’s communication systems.
In leveraging the discoveries of science, most participating organizations are trying to remain somewhere between the view that scientific results need to speak for themselves and the alternative position that highly active public advocacy is necessary to reverse policies that undermine science.
Mary Woolley, CEO of Research!America, said it is time for scientists to step into the public sphere and forge relationships outside of the scientific community and, particularly, reach out to policymakers at all levels.
Pointing to the Trump administration’s proposed fiscal 2018 federal funding cuts for science programs, which Congress must approve, Woolley said reductions to the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention threaten to become “a fast-track to failure against the goal of ending deadly and debilitating diseases.”
“It is critically important that scientists and those who care about the future of our nation’s scientific enterprise continue to act as advocates beyond the March,” Woolley said.
“A personal commitment by every scientist to advocacy is crucial if we are to end the invisibility that surrounds scientists and the science enterprise, leading policymakers to think it is not a public priority,” Woolley added. “It’s time for every scientist to put a human face on science – their face!”
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