March for Science: Supporters of Science Stand Up for Evidence

Marchers enjoyed a sunny and warm Saturday for their trek toward the U.S. Capitol, signs and banners aplenty. | Neil Orman/AAAS

Science enthusiasts gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, joined by supporters at some 230 satellite rallies in towns and cities across the globe for what was an endorsement of scientific evidence and a celebration of its discoveries.

“Today, thousands of people from all walks of life all over the world are saying that evidence verified by science is the only reliable starting point to make public policy that can succeed — policies that touch every aspect of our lives health, economics, our environment, national security and more,” said Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in his Mall speech.

It was the second March for Science in as many years. With the novelty gone, organizers set their focus on the scientific enterprise and opportunities to engage the public in local communities. Scientists, students and children addressed the crowd, focusing on the value of scientific research in addressing pressing global challenges from climate change, to food security to world health. In cities and small towns alike, scientific demonstrations, activities and lecture sessions highlighted the relevance of science, its human applications and its longstanding societal benefits.

“You may think the power and relevance of science are self-evident, but do not expect science to speak for itself. We must use whatever megaphones we can,” said Holt. “Science doesn’t replace personal faith, aesthetics or poetry. But in all public matters, decisions should be based on evidence, not wishful thinking or rigid ideology.”

Kicking off the event, AAAS hosted a pre-March rally for its members and affiliate scientific organizations at its headquarters, featuring a range of scientific leaders, including Eric Davidson, president of the American Geophysical Union, Talitha Washington, an associate professor of mathematics at Howard University, and Mary Woolley, president of Research!America, the nation’s largest nonprofit dedicated to making medical and health research a national priority.

Rush Holt motivates AAAS members and those of affiliate scientific organizations at a pre-March rally hosted at AAAS headquarters. | Neil Orman/AAAS

Davidson, who is also director and a professor at the Appalachian Laboratory of the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, pointed to a Reagan administration funding initiative on acid rain that led to significant improvements in air quality, a development that, in turn, improved the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay as an example the gains science delivers.

“All of this was done with benefit, not harm, to the economy. Investment in science pays,” said Davidson, reciting the latter phrase repeatedly. He urged scientists to continue each year to stand up for science to bring attention to its economic, human health and environmental benefits. “The March for Science was clearly not a one-off event.”

Washington turned to historical challenges the science community still must address in tracing the story of the third African-American to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics in 1933 – W. W. Schiefflin Claytor, who often encountered disbelief when he revealed that he held a Ph.D. Washington noted that Claytor was a mentor to Katherine Johnson, the now-renowned research mathematician for the space flight division at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, now NASA, featured in the movie “Hidden Figures.”

“The road of mathematics is still not an easy road to travel,” Washington said. “Diversity in science is about benefitting from the whole potential of all field professionals and becoming a better nation and a better world. Do not be afraid to lean in for what is right, just and fair. We must directly address the lack of diversity in the sciences.”

Marga Gual Soler, project director at the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy, who spoke at AAAS’ rally and also was invited to address those gathered on the Mall, underscored the need for science to seek out international alliances, saying challenges such as infectious diseases, the emergence of gene-editing tools and artificial intelligence “have scientific and technological dimensions and cross-national borders.”

Marchers carried all kinds of signs from homemade to professionally produced. | Neil Orman/AAAS

Citing immigration restrictions, the U.S. withdrawal from international organizations like UNESCO and global agreements like the Paris Accord, Gual Soler said the “the U.S. government’s image and capabilities to positively engage internationally are being diminished and degraded.”

“All the March for Science partners and science supporters that are here today have a responsibility to be clear to the world about the desire and need for scientists to continue engaging and collaborating with our global counterparts,” Gual Soler added.

During the AAAS rally, Woolley endorsed the need for scientists to become advocates for the enterprise, citing research her group first conducted decades ago that found only 16% of Americans surveyed said they could name a living scientist.

“The problem is that for 20 years that 16% has not changed, and that is one of most important reasons for the March for Science: to put a human face on the science enterprise and being a stakeholder for science, even if you don’t happen to be one yourself,” she said, adding that other studies show that the “public wants science to succeed.”

She cast the March as a beginning and urged scientists and science supporters to engage with their communities. She said when asked what you do for a living, reply: “I work for you.”

On the Mall, AAAS held a series of “teach-ins” where marchers were coached on how to advocate for science in their communities. Getting involved in science policy “doesn’t have to be intimidating,” said Erin Heath, associate director of AAAS’ Office of Government Relations.

Just one hour can make a difference, Heath said, if you research a policy issue, vote in an election or find out who your congressional representatives are and contact them on the phone, via email or through social media. Yet, the best way to influence policymakers is to meet with them in person either in Washington, D.C., or in their home district, she noted.

Sean Gallagher, associate in the Office of Government Relations at AAAS and a former Capitol Hill staffer, offered two tips for communicating effectively with members of Congress and their staff members: First, know your audience; do your research and pinpoint the issues most important to the lawmaker. Second, tell a story, he said. Avoid relying solely on data, as it is much less memorable.

Effective science communication, whether the audience is a policymaker, a friend, a family member or a stranger, creates opportunities for dialogue, said Emily Cloyd, project director of AAAS’ Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology. Scientists have knowledge to impart, but they also have something to learn from their audience. Public engagement is a conversation, not a lecture, Cloyd noted.

For scientists seeking to reach out to different audiences, Theresa Harris, project director of AAAS’ Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program, said human rights is an area where AAAS can share decades of experience and provide opportunities for engagement. Scientists can get involved in AAAS On-Call Scientists, which connects volunteer scientists and engineers with human rights organizations in need of scientific expertise, while students can hold campus events to encourage conversations about the connections between science and human rights with access to a AAAS toolkit, Harris said.

Shirley Malcom, director of AAAS’ Education and Human Resources division, rallied marchers at last year’s pre-March event at AAAS, and the video of her firing up the crowd was used Saturday to introduce Rush Holt for his speech on the Mall. | Larry Kirkman/American University

Another teach-in touted the AAAS STEM Volunteers Program as a rewarding way to improve science literacy and connect classroom concepts with the wider world for elementary, middle and high school students.

Gary Temple, a volunteer and microbiologist who retired in 2011 from the National Institutes of Health, seeks to emphasize to students that “science is relevant in their life, that math is really important, that critical thinking is an important part of being a citizen.”

Curtis Baxter, program associate in AAAS’ Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion, encouraged science advocates to communicate with religious and faith communities. “Religious and faith communities are engaged communities,” he said, noting that people with strong religious networks are more likely to be civically active.

During the pre-March rally, Holt emphasized the importance of informing the public.

“The public must have enough understanding of what science is, how it works, what benefits it brings in order to grant scientists the freedom to choose the problems to work on, the freedom to choose collaborators, the support to do the work,” Holt said. “So, we must step into the public square and speak up. It becomes necessary to march. Let’s go.”