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AAAS Member Christina Phelps on Organizing the LA March for Science

Christina Phelps. Photo Credit Kyle Grillot

Ready to march? Scientists and science boosters worldwide are taking to the streets in support of science education and the use of scientific evidence in public policy. The first-ever March for Science takes place in Washington on April 22 – Earth Day – and AAAS has thrown its weight behind it as part of its mission to advance science, engineering, and innovation. And the Washington march has spawned more than 500 allied demonstrations, from Albuquerque to New Zealand.

Helping plan one of those marches is Christina Phelps, a Los Angeles dietician and a AAAS Science Advocate. The 2010 Ohio State graduate says organizers are hoping for a five-figure turnout next Saturday for a mile-long march that will run from downtown LA’s Pershing Square to its famous City Hall. Phelps recently took a few minutes out from her preparations to talk with MemberCentral about her hopes for the event.

Q: What drew you to trying to organize one of these marches?  

Phelps: I participated in the women’s march in January. The sign I carried in the women’s march said, “Facts matter.” Really, if you can’t agree on the basic framework for reality, then how can you agree on policy to improve that reality? The way we find out more about our world is through science—it’s through inquiry and systematic use of the scientific process to examine cause and effect. I just felt like that has been lost in governance, certainly in the past few years.

It seems every time you hear a political debate these days, you’re not listening to people discuss the approaches to solving problems; you’re actually hearing people discuss what is reality, what world we’re living in. There’s two completely different sets of facts that are being presented. The ways that policies are being created don’t necessarily reflect the best evidence-based approaches. So the Sunday after [the] women’s march, I sat down and started looking at what it takes to organize a march in Los Angeles.

I sat on it for a couple of weeks. Then an NPR news story came out that mentioned someone in DC was talking about organizing a science march. I figured the best way to capture the momentum at that point was to have a place for everyone to go, so I created a Facebook event. I didn’t really expect a lot from it … but within a couple of days, there were thousands and thousands of people interested.

Q: Did you have any previous experience with activism? Did you learn anything you’re applying here?

Phelps:  I’m not a community organizer. I don’t have a background in it. I’ve had various experiences volunteering … The lessons I learned from the women’s march were really that you have to have a long-term strategy. The march is the way that you generate interest, and you demonstrate how many people care in a dramatic fashion. It takes a lot more effort to get people in the streets than it does to sign a petition, especially an online petition.

So you can have a big march and have that be your big statement and leave it at that. You’ve generated some new stories, people are aware that you care, and that’s something. Or you can use it as an opportunity to start building coalitions, reach out to your policymakers and figure out where you can be a resource. Your views, or your perspectives on policy, you can direct people to scientists who can give educated opinions or positions on policy objectives.

Q: How are you working with AAAS on this?

Phelps: AAAS is our partner. They have great resources on policy and science. They’re really good at monitoring legislation that affects science and scientists and the application of science and regulation … For me, it’s been a good resource to identify the issues that are really relevant and moving.

Q: And what’s the plan for L.A.? 

Phelps: We’ll march from Pershing Square to City Hall. We’ll have stages and speakers at both locations … We’re partnering with the community to create a science expo. Different booths will have tables to do science demonstrations and educate people on their particular science niche.

Q: How do you keep people connected afterward?

Phelps: One of the approaches I think we can take is creating something like a research week, where universities across the country can have politicians come in and see the value of the research they’re dealing with and experience the return on the investment in science. We need more stakeholders in science in Congress. So I think we need some outreach directly to the politicians, explaining it to them in terms they understand—not lecturing them about study design and statistical significance of the results, but what does it mean, and how often is the research done and funded by the government turning into whole industries.

As far as individuals go, joining AAAS is a way any marcher can direct their funds straight to a science advocate in Washington. But we also need more scientists to be involved in government, actually, in running for office. …. So getting more scientists to run, getting more people to support scientist candidates, recognizing that having people from a diverse skill set in Congress is important. You need to have a diversity of viewpoints if you need to come up with well-rounded, holistic policy.

Q: As someone who's not in one of the traditional science and engineering disciplines, what drew you to AAAS? 

Phelps: When I began researching ways to get involved in science policy, it became apparent that AAAS was the best resource for effectively advocating for science in governance. Their sponsorship of March for Science further underscores the alignment of the two organizations' goals. Anyone who supports the mission of the March for Science would further the cause by helping to fund AAAS efforts on the Hill. 

Q: Are there any California-specific issues that you hope this march will highlight?

Phelps: We’re really fortunate in California that our policymakers—and even in Los Angeles, our mayor—have been extremely supportive of science. We have a ton of universities, a lot of research universities, and they get a lot of funding from the government. That’s on the be big issues that matters a lot. We also have JPL [NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory] right here, where tons of scientists are employed. We hope to highlight that it’s an essential part of our economy, and our economic growth as a state depends on science. That extends to the tech industry as well.

Q: What do you hope people will take away from the event?

Phelps: I hope that the takeaway is that science is the pursuit of knowledge, and applying science to policy and government results in better outcomes for everyone.


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