College Park, Maryland: “I have a deadline tonight. Sorry.”
I learnt from experience that this, and variants thereof, is the response you get when you urge STEM PhD researchers to come out and join some protest or public cause, at least before April 22, 2017. A PhD scholar at the bottom of the academic totem pole combines the qualities of an unhealthy workload, an allergy to the Sun and a fear of offending the wrong people. Despite there being an obvious connection between politics and how science is done, what science is done, or the baffling sentiment of should science be done, scientists themselves have always been staunchly apolitical, especially those in the West.
This is even more so if they are foreign nationals like me. Those brave ones whose work gets visible in “wedge issues” like climate change have had corporations, politicians and bigots of various shades act against them. This has been complemented by an ivory tower mentality: many of my peers do not want to, or lack the skills needed to, engage with those outside their research.
Regardless of the disconnect to ‘dirty’ politics many scientists would prefer, the act of engaging in a disciplined enquiry of truth is inherently political. Science affects the world just as strongly as the world affects scientists and our funding. Right now, climate change research is vital, with the planet’s atmosphere having a carbon dioxide concentration that will irreversibly damage the planet. This doesn’t just mean sea-level-rise but biodiversity and food security will be problems as well. In health, superbugs have started appearing due to the global misuse of antibiotics and urgent research is required to deal with this to prevent pandemics.
In the field of artificial intelligence (where I work), rapid advancements make an automated future possible, and it is imperative that public policy becomes cognisant of it. Changes to the global economic structures will be expected not just to prevent under-employment and wealth imbalance on an unprecedented scale but to also realise a future where this accelerated productivity can benefit the masses. The importance of the marriage of science to policymaking thus cannot be overstated.
So what changed that made the ‘March for Science’ possible, that made hundreds of thousands of reticent academics all over the world take to the streets? Conversations with my peers has highlighted two factors. First: the growing consciousness that we as scientists, who work to uphold empirical research, exist as a class and negotiate as a class. Second was the realisation that we are losing the battle between fact and ideology, and that seems to be a global phenomenon not localised on contemporary American politics.
Over the years there has been simmering discontent in scientific circles that we who are in the business of discovering what objective reality is are being soundly ignored by our political masters. But objective reality does not stop existing if enough powerful people refuse to engage with it. The frustration has built up that trying to save the planet should not be a political stance at all – but has been rendered into one. And while a lot of scientists in the march, including me, wanted to keep this a bipartisan apolitical march in support of the scientific method, the reality of our troubles makes it all but impossible.
After all, in the US, it is the current administration that has initiated massive cuts in research and appointed cabinet members who are openly hostile to the sciences. There exists a singular kind of politics that built the public sentiment needed to reverse stances on climate change. An overwhelming majority of the scientific community is united in tackling climate change and treats it as an existential threat to the species.
As researchers with friends in the Indian research community, I and others are deeply aware that the anti-intellectual malaise is not US-specific. The current and past Indian administrations have had a peculiar relationship with India’s premier research institutions, students and rationalists. Instead of building and funding more places of higher learning, seats are being cut, pseudoscience and superstition are being allowed to propagate and the money for research is dwindling. There is hardly any public impetus towards post-bachelor education. The artificially created public antagonism against science exists all over the world, and is more pronounced in countries that are tilting towards right-wing authoritarian.
When these ideas were floating around, the trigger event for the science march was a series of posts on Reddit in January 2017 about the Trump administration’s actions related to the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) and later the National Institutes of Health. Someone suggested a scientists’ march, many agreed. A postdoctoral fellow from the University of Texas Health Science Centre, Jonathan Berman, created a Facebook page that grew from 200 people to 300,000 people in less than a week, indicating popular support for the cause. Within a month, leaders had been decided, public faces like Bill Nye, and Mona-Hanna Attisha, the whistleblower in the Flint water crisis, had been invited to broadcast the event. I and many others waited with bated breath for Earth Day, April 22.
When the march finally happened, it exceeded any realistic expectations of attendance. Considering the academic cause, I didn’t expect the public to stand in solidarity with us scientists in such numbers. But in the final estimates, the marches in both Washington DC and Los Angeles attracted 40,000-50,000 each. The one in New York stretched for ten blocks along Central Park. Even outside the US, in Berlin, London, Paris, Melbourne and other major cities, there were marches with thousands of protestors.
In DC, where I marched, it rained all day and that did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm. A nonprofit called Earth Day Network was in charge for organisation (as the event happened on Earth Day). It had invited public faces and science heroes like Nye, Christiana Figueres (one of the architects of the Paris climate agreement), Lydia Villa-Komaroff, etc., to deliver speeches. Musicians and bands had been invited to play for the crowd. Twenty-something teach-ins had been organised to give a chance for researchers to communicate with the public – all before the march proper started towards the Capitol building.
While I and many others attempted sobriety on our signs and placards, there were many inventive and witty slogans as well. Signs excoriating the administration’s attitude and policies towards science were seen, too. In all, the inscrutable scientist came out with her peers, was cheered on by the people and, for a little while out of the laboratory, did something improbable and had fun.
Now that the march has ended, the question that the scientific community will have to grapple with is this: Seriously, what next? Shows of force and popularity are good but the popular sentiment generated needs to be translated into something concrete, a culture of continuous dialogue and outreach with the public at large. I certainly hope the March for Science leads to a Movement for Science.
Anupam Guha is a final year PhD candidate at the computer science department of the University of Maryland.