March for Science Partners Work to Put a Human Face on Science

Visit the AAAS Force for Science website to follow the latest updates related to AAAS advocacy activities.


 

Scientists, scientific organizations and science supporters are preparing posters and organizing pre-march events designed to ensure the March for Science on April 22nd communicates the value of science well into the future. | AAAS

Scientific organizations partnering with the March for Science are stressing the need for scientists to connect more directly with policymakers and the public both now and in the future to build support for science and explain its value for society.

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.

“We live now in an age where scientists do have to become engaged in the communication of the value of their science,” Davidson said. “I see this march as a watershed moment where we really focus on that, emphasize how important it is and that we do have a voice and need to use it effectively.”

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.

 

Science proponents will show their support for science not only on Washington’s National Mall on April 22nd but also by attending satellite marches across the globe. | Kathleen Bachynski

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,” she 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. It’s time for every scientist to put a human face on science – their face!”

Advocates stood up for science at a rally held earlier this year in Boston and now events are set to unfold at more than 500 satellite marches. | AnubisAbyss/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Alan Mix, president of the Oceanography Society, agrees that this “a critical moment,” saying global cooperation among scientists who study the world’s oceans is as essential as continuing support for scientific research. In the United States alone, he said, federal funding for National Science Foundation grants for ocean sciences has declined about 20% in inflation-adjusted dollars since 2004.

“This funding is not a gift,” Mix said. “It is an investment that yields huge net returns for the nation and the world … disinvestment in science risks losing all these benefits.”

Mix said the job of science “is to figure out how the world and universe really work," adding, "The value of science is long-term.”  

Kara Flynn, senior director of communications and marketing for the Society for Neuroscience, said that while polls have long shown public support for science, the challenge for many scientists remains showing how their work benefits people’s everyday lives.

The march provides a great opportunity for raising awareness of the impact of science, she said, and scientific organizations can build upon that message.

Already, the neuroscience group offers an array of accessible online information about brain science and has extensive educational programs aimed at sparking high school students’ interest in the field as well as programs that guide practicing scientists from the beginning of their careers to retirement, Flynn noted.

Still, communicating the value of disciplines like physics can be particularly challenging, conceded Rebecca Thompson, head of Public Outreach for the American Physical Society, which is also partnering with the march. Physics “is not just someone in a lab coat with crazy hair doing esoteric things.”

“We do have a lot of ways to engage the public and bring that wonder and excitement,” said Thompson pointing to Higgs boson, the 2012 discovery that explained how other fundamental particles get their masses, and the 2015 inaugural detection of gravitational waves that confirmed a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity. “But translating that into how it affects people’s lives and why science funding is important is really one of our big jobs.”

The Optical Society may have an easier time demonstrating the impact of optics and photonics technologies found in cameras, MRI, surgical lasers and satellites. Still, of particular importance to the group is protecting global collaboration, according to Eric Mazur, Optical Society president, professor of physics and applied physics and dean of applied physics at Harvard University.

Noting that a co-inventor of the laser in the 1960s was Iranian and studied in the United States, Mazur said, “We know what that did, right? Telecommunications, the internet, everything. You shut the door to any particular group of people and the world may look very different 40 years later.”

Like other partners with the march, the optical group also is looking beyond the event. “It is important that scientists’ voices are not only heard loud and clear on the 22nd,” said Mazur. “But that the momentum continues as Congress and the administration consider policies that will impact the scientific community.”