Science Makes Its Voice Heard In Washington and Beyond
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Rush Holt’s call to thousands of marchers to ask for evidence when engaging with public leaders attracts rousing applause. | Earth Day Network
Thousands of science enthusiasts braved a driving rain on Saturday to participate in the March for Science in Washington, D.C., joining crowds at hundreds of other satellite events across the globe to celebrate what the head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science called “civilization’s best friend.”
“Science is society’s best friend,” said Rush Holt, CEO of AAAS, the world’s largest general scientific organization. “Science is our government’s best friend. Science is civilization’s best friend.”
In remarks to an energetic crowd, Holt said the March for Science is intended to demonstrate that the relevance, utility and “beauty” of science is simply “too important to people’s lives to be denied or downgraded.”
AAAS opened its doors to participants in the march that brought together tens of thousands of science enthusiasts in Washington, D.C. and more than 600 other satellite locations across the globe. | AAAS/Neil Orman
Ticking off his professional journey from physics professor, to national lab administrator, to member of Congress, to AAAS, Holt said his career repeatedly confirmed: “Evidence should not be optional. Good policies start with an understanding of how things actually are.”
“Today, thousands of people from all walks of life all over the world are saying that evidence verified by science is the only reliable way to make public policy, policy that touches our lives in every way – health and economics, environment and transportation and security,” he said.
The scientific enterprise thrives, Holt added, in environments that welcome diverse groups, invite alternative points of view, endorse collaboration and enjoy robust public funding. “These conditions are threatened today,” he said. “And we must defend them.”
“Science doesn’t replace personal faith or humane studies or poetry. But in all public matters, decisions should be based on evidence, not wishful thinking or rigid ideology,” Holt declared.
London was among the more than 600 cities and towns across the globe to host satellite marches to support science. | Erica Ford
Holt was among more than 50 speakers representing the full span of scientific and engineering disciplines, along with physicians, educators, academics, entrepreneurs, musicians, communicators, poets and aspiring young scientists who addressed the wet but enthusiastic thousands who poured onto the National Mall and later marched to the U.S. Capitol. The speakers, all with a sight line to the White House, sounded common themes in urging the scientific community to share science with the public and find ways to defend it.
Among the scientific luminaries recognized was Nancy Roman, 91, the astronomer who was one of the first female executives at NASA and played a central role in the planning for the Hubble Space Telescope. She was met with waves of applause as she was escorted to the stage.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician, director of a pediatric residency program in Flint, Mich. and the first person to raise public concerns about elevated lead levels in the blood of Flint area children, talked about the consequences of sounding the alarm over her research that found Flint’s water system was leaching lead into drinking water and making her young patients sick.
“I took a risk. I walked out of my clinic to publicly speak up for kids. And I was attacked,” Hanna-Attisha said. “But when you are fighting for children, you fight back. And I did. I was stubborn and loud and my science told the truth. Science is not an alternative fact.”
Hanna-Attisha introduced Mari Copeny, a 9-year old Flint resident, who, reading carefully from prepared notes, said 8,000 children under the age of 6 were exposed to high lead levels from the contaminated water. “When we don’t believe in science and especially when our government doesn’t believe in science, kids get hurt,” said Copeny. “For the sake of Flint kids all over the world, I march for science.”
Bill Nye, CEO of The Planetary Society who is popularly known as “the science guy,” pointed to the vision of the nation’s framers for enshrining in the U.S. Constitution support for promoting the progress of science. He said while some lawmakers are now “deliberately ignoring and actively suppressing science … Our numbers here today show the world that science is for all. Our lawmakers must know and accept that science serves every one of us, every citizen and every society. Science must shape policy.”
Lydia Villa-Komaroff, a molecular and cellular biologist and co-founding member of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, underscored the value of basic research, noting that her work studying strains of infection-resistant bacteria led to a discovery that “made it possible to make insulin and other treatments in bacteria. … and that made possible the birth of the biotech industry.”
“We shortchange our future when we do not provide sufficient public support for scientific research,” she said, calling on the president and Congress to “reverse this trend.”
James Balog, who founded Extreme Ice Survey that uses photography and videography to document the impact of climate change on glaciers – work that was the basis of his 2012 documentary “Chasing Ice”– said his work shows how human activities are transforming Earth’s systems. “You and I and all 7.5 billion of us are changing the climate along with the fundamental character of the homeland that nurtures us,” he said.
Christiana Figueres, an architects of the Paris Agreement on climate change, was the last to come to the stage, addressing the crowd on the first anniversary of the signing of the agreement. Due to climate change, she said, the world faces “one of the most daunting crossroads in the evolution of human history, we are at the point where we must decide: are we going to ignore science or are we going to rise to the call of history and forge a new life on Earth paradigm … where nature and humanity support each other.”
She cited signs of progress, noting that investment in alternative energy sources continues to grow. “We are getting there,” she said. “We do have the technology; all we need is the collective intentionality.”
The beginning of the actual march to the Capitol was momentarily delayed when Pope Francis tweeted in a prayer for humans to “protect the world and not prey on it, that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.”
March participants carried all kinds of signs about the value of science. One, lower right, casts science as the way around the Oregon Trail penalty. | Neil Orman, Andrea Korte, Earl Lane/AAAS
With that, the marchers were off. They carried signs declaring “Be Part of The Solution, And Not the Precipitate,” “The Oceans Are Rising and So Are We,” and “Pathogens Are Not Partisan.” There were some overtly partisan signs, yet many focused on science. People wore lab coats and donned knit brain caps, and, of course had ponchos and umbrellas.
Among the crowd was Mitzi Adams, a solar astronomer, who expressed hope that the march “sends a message to our elected officials that science is important and should be funded appropriately.”
“It would be really nice if there were more discussion between people that understand science and the scientific method and those that don’t,” said Dennis Gallagher, another marcher who described himself as a private citizen scientist. “It’s all about dialogue.”
Clara Gibbons, a research analyst for the Frameworks Institute, said “It’s really important for scientists to continue to be involved in policy and, dare I say it, politics.” She said she wants more scientists to consider running for office.
“We want policy in science, not politics in science,” said Peter McIntyre, an engineer at Siemens, who was wearing a lab coat.
Lynn Vismara, who works for Maryland’s Montgomery County park system, was among many the non-scientists. She said she wanted to learn more about what scientists are trying to achieve. “I want to support them,” she said.
For Nicole Mogul, a University of Maryland professor of engineering ethics and a member of IEEE, which, like AAAS, was a march partner, expressed concern that the event may have communicated “a condescending attitude” unhelpful to science. “One of the real problems is that scientists haven’t worked with communities from the ground up to figure out how to make science relevant to people’s lives,” she said.
AAAS, which is among some 240 scientific and academic organizations that partnered with the March for Science, began the day opening its doors to marchers for breakfast and an early pre-march rally featuring speakers from the American Geophysical Union, the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, the Oceanography Society, Association for Vision, the American Physical Society and the Optical Society. A prompt from Holt to the audience to name their scientific affiliations delivered the full scope of scientific societies from the American Chemical Society to Sigma Xi.
Shirley Malcolm, directorate head of AAAS’ Education and Human Resources program, deadpanned to the psyched and enthusiastic group, “my assignment was to rally the troops. I do not think that will be necessary.” Nonetheless, she did just that.
[Associated image: Jenifer Morris/EPNAC]