WASHINGTON, DC — Scientists typically aren’t comfortable getting political. But tens of thousands of scientists and their supporters felt frustrated enough with the current political assault on science and reason to hit the streets of Washington, D.C. on Saturday.
The March for Science attracted professionals from a wide range of fields. Many who marched told ThinkProgress that the importance of the federal government basing public policy on sound science outweighed any potential negative perception associated with scientists marching on Washington.
Neurobiologist Erich Jarvis, a featured speaker at the rally prior to the march, told ThinkProgress “it’s an outrage that scientists for the first time in history have to get together with the public” to support the value of science. “When the fundamental principles of science are being attacked, scientists have to speak up,” he said.
The Rockefeller University professor believes the Earth Day event will educate the public on the value of science and encourage them to push their legislators to make evidence-based policy decisions.
But Jarvis emphasized the time for action is now, not when Trump’s term ends. “Four years is too late. With four more years of funding cuts, then you lose a critical period to train students who are the scientists of tomorrow,” Jarvis said. “Four years also could go by without saving some species from extinction. Extinction is forever. They’ve got to do it now.”
Like the successful protests against Republican plans to get rid of Obamacare, people can make a difference if they continue to organize and don’t walk away from the March for Science believing their jobs are done, Denis Hayes, one of the coordinators of the first Earth Day in 1970, told the crowd.
“Like that first Earth Day, this Earth Day is just the beginning. And in that battle, losing is not an option because if we lose this fight, we will pass on a desolate, impoverished planet for the next 100 generations. This is the first step,” said Hayes, who serves as the president and CEO of the Bullitt Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes sustainable communities.
The rally in Washington took place on the rain-soaked grounds of the Washington Monument and was followed by a march to the Capitol. Satellite marches were held in more than 400 cities on six continents.
Protest marches may be common in Washington. But this was the first time scientists staged their own kind of protest. Dozens of organizations were official participants in the event, including mainstream science groups like the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Geophysical Union.
Famed climate scientist Michael Mann, who hasn’t shied away from political battles, attributed the Trump administration’s plans to gut funding for climate action programs and the Environmental Protection Agency to a “madhouse effect” among Republicans.
“Never before have we needed science more to deal with the changing climate,” Mann told the crowd. The current global warming trend, primarily caused by the burning of fossil fuels, is “unprecedented,” explained Mann, who was part of a team of scientists who found a pattern —known as the “hockey stick” graph — that showed a rapid warming of the planet starting in the early 20th century.
Despite the overwhelming scientific consensus to the contrary, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and others in the Trump administration have questioned whether carbon dioxide causes climate change and the magnitude of humans’ role in driving it.
Human-induced climate change is clearly happening now, speakers emphasized, and the clock is ticking on whether nations will be able to limit the rise in temperatures by only 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, as outlined in the Paris climate accord, to avoid catastrophic consequences.
With congressional Republicans unwilling to stop him, “our coal-loving president is punching the accelerator” that could send the world over a “climate cliff,” Hayes said.
The March for Science was billed as a call for politicians to implement science-based policies and a public celebration of all science. Some speakers expressed anger at how ideology often takes priority over science-based public policy-making.
Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician and expert on the health effects of the Flint water crisis, told the crowd that Flint residents still cannot drink unfiltered water from the taps in their homes. “Flint is what happens when we dismiss science,” she said. “Flint is what happens when saving money is more important than the public health.”
The scientific community is split on whether it should participate in marches or protests. Hanna-Attisha sides with those who believe scientists must break out of their comfort zones. “It is time for all of us to step out of our clinics, our classrooms and our labs,” she insisted. “We need to make ourselves known in the halls over government.”
Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, was pleased to see so many scientists finally realizing that “activism is important to advance science.”
“Politics has always been with us. We don’t want it to drive our science. But we have to recognize that we work in a political environment,” Benjamin told ThinkProgress. “Because they are scientists, they have not given up their constitutional rights to act. And Einstein said — I’ll paraphrase it —that it is important to do the facts, but if we don’t speak out when we see something that is wrong, then we’re missing the point.”
Benjamin hopes scientists will start showing up in droves at legislative hearings where proposals to cut science or public health budgets are slated to be discussed. “And I hope they will recommit themselves to work as hard as they can to answer critical questions that move our society forward,” he added.
The march also attracted a large contingent of future scientists. Kavya Kopparapu, a junior at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Virgina, said the event inspired students at her school to appreciate the value of a science education.
Kopparapu, who delivered a speech to the crowd, appreciated how the march brought attention to the fact that science is under attack.
The federal government must continue funding science and technology programs because the private sector often cannot justify to its shareholders the risk associated with making significant investments in certain types of research and development, Kopparapu told ThinkProgress. The government also excels at creating training programs, she added.
“We need a whole new generation of future scientists who are looking forward to getting into a career in the sciences,” said Kopparapu, who founded the Girls Computing League, a nonprofit group that works to empower underrepresented groups in technology. “Preserving their dreams and being able to show them that science is forever is important.”