March for Science Gears Up Amid Debate Over Diversity

March for Science organizers hope Saturday’s event will build momentum for a pro-science movement beyond April 22.

Michael Shermer, a columnist for Scientific American who will speak from the main stage at the March for Science satellite rally in Los Angeles, has a message for those who want Saturday’s 500-city event to highlight the lack of women and minorities in scientific professions: That’s a different march.

“I’m all in for celebrating science as the greatest instrument for ever understanding the world,” said Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. “But we’re talking about marching to promote science in an era when there might be drastic cuts, and you want to stand up on a stage and say science is racist and bigoted and that it sucks? How do you think Congress will respond to that?”

As organizers of Saturday’s event seek to replicate the success of January’s Women’s March, they face a dilemma lodged firmly in the intersection of science and public policy: How to assert the independence of science from politics, while using a political rally to make their point.

That paradox has bedeviled organizers and spawned criticism that the rally is too political — or not political enough.

Some warn the march itself risks turning scientists into just another special interest group. Others charge the march hasn’t done enough to address inequalities within the field itself.

That debate hasn’t, however, deterred many thousands of supporters from pledging to turn out for what may become the biggest march in support of science in history.

Organizers hope a big, energized event will spur momentum well beyond Saturday.

“The march isn’t going to change anything unless we can keep it going after April 22,” said Caroline Weinberg, national co-chair of the March for Science at a recent press conference in Washington DC. “The march is a first step. After April 22, we’re transitioning from organizing marches into becoming a global organization focused on science education, outreach, and advocacy.”

“People who support science have to take a public stand at this point and be counted.”

The march, born in a discussion thread on Reddit, has ballooned into a global phenomenon with satellite rallies scheduled for over 500 cities around the world from Norway to New Zealand and a roster of over 200 partners including some of the most bonafide organizations in the world of modern science — from the American Association for the Advancement of Science to the American Psychological Association.

The concept sprang up in the wake of President Donald Trump’s inauguration and the massive Women’s March on January 21.

A Facebook group thrown together by organizers grew from 200 members to 300,000 in less than a week.

“Science, Scientists, and evidence-based policy-making are under attack,” Weinberg said, citing Trump’s proposed budget cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Health. “People who support science have to take a public stand at this point and be counted.”

But as momentum grew, some in the scientific community began to suggest the entire idea might prove self-defeating — by boxing in scientists as partisans of the left.

“Trying to recreate the pointedly political Women’s March will serve only to reinforce the narrative from skeptical conservatives that scientists are an interest group and politicize their data, research, and findings for their own ends,” Robert S. Young, professor of coastal geology at Western Carolina University, wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times under the headline, “A Scientists’ March on Washington Is a Bad Idea.”

Others pushed organizers to take a more explicit stand in favor of expanding the role of minorities and women within fields long dominated by white men.

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Women comprise 48 percent of the American workforce but just 28 percent of the workforce in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, collectively known as STEM, according to 2009 census data. And while 16 percent of white high school graduates complete calculus, the same is true for only 6 percent of African American and 7 percent of Hispanic high school graduates, according to a report by the American Association of University Women.

Michael Eisen, the University of California, Berkeley, geneticist who on April 13 announced a bid for US Senate, argued that the march shouldn’t shy away from embracing social justice issues.

“Do people not find it ironic that they are marching to get the broader public to face up to uncomfortable truths like climate change,” he posted on twitter, “but are unwilling to face uncomfortable truths about the deep biases embedded in science today & how our silences perpetuates them?”

Caught in the crossfire, organizers stumbled and sought to fine-tune their message.

Founding co-chair Jonathan Berman caused a stir by tellingThe New York Times in February: “Yes, this is a protest, but it’s not a political protest.”

He soon walked back that comment. The group spent the next month cranking our four different versions of its diversity statement.

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Days before the march, Berman wrote Seeker by email to say march organizers “stand in solidarity with historically underrepresented scientists,” and that “inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility (IDEA) are integral to our mission and to our overall goals and principles.”

But as the date got closer, some critics maintained that the march’s stance on diversity had always been window dressing at best.

On April 16, Jacquelyn Gill, an ecologist at the University of Maine, blasted the group’s leadership, tweeting that she’d quit the organizing committee due to a “to a toxic, dysfunctional environment and hostility to diversity and inclusion.”

Others, like Shermer, publicly argued that those pushing for a social justice focus were muddying the message.

On March 22, Shermer tweeted: “Science is universal, international, inclusive, nonpartisan, a-political, a-gender, a-race, & a-ideological. Don't inject identity politics.”

While 5,000 people liked his post, an avalanche of twitter-hate also ensued, as users reminded him of history’s gravest abuses of scientific practices, from eugenics to nuclear weapons. One critic on twitter lambasted his comment as “wrongness distilled to a gloopy elixir of wrongosity.”

In an interview, Shermer said he planned to avoid wading into the political debate during his public comments from the stage during the March for Science event in Los Angeles.

“It’s my intention to skip all the political stuff and just say, ‘science is cool,’” he said.

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Meanwhile, many of those who plan to show up Saturday simply hope that the debate over diversity doesn’t dampen the event itself.

Rebecca Nelson, professor of plant pathology at Cornell University, said she’s traveling to Washington DC and joining the march in order to take a stand against the science policies of the administration of President Donald Trump.

“I detect a contempt for science among them,” she said from her cellphone in the airport on her way to the march. “There seems to be some desire to leave certain things unknown — not to know the negative effects of, for example, coal on the environment.”

She said she hopes the debate over the march’s precise message doesn’t undermine the broader statement in favor of science itself.

“I’m not big on infighting,” she said. “I’ll show up and represent that we believe in truth. I’m going to go express myself. I’m not at all interested in any disputes of any kind beyond that.”

Yet she couldn’t help expressing frustration at the lack of unity.

“I will say that I’m a bit disappointed by our community’s ability to knife itself in the spleen,” she said.