5/18/2017 0 Comments
When Scientists Go Marching In
By Gabrielle-Anne Torre
The morning of the March for Science started off just like any other morning. I woke up and did an activity I’ve done many times over: put in my contacts and brushed my teeth. A German glassblower devised wearable contacts in 1887, centuries after Leonardo da Vinci and Rene Descartes played with the idea of enhancing corneal power. In the 1900’s, while experiments were being performed on plastic lenses, the formula for modern toothpaste gel was also being tested. The ingredients of toothpaste are still modified by labs, and both contact lenses and toothpaste are worth an estimated $17 billion combined. Compared to the cost of science, the cost I spend on these daily necessities is small. What would I do on any given day without contact lenses or toothpaste? But as I prepared for the day ahead, an even bigger question was on my mind: What would I do without science?
The announcement of the March for Science was something that as a Ph.D. student in Neuroscience, I did not expect to see in my lifetime. From dubious to motivated, my expectations of the march evolved as I realized what an effective march could mean. Could the march spur a re-evaluation of a larger mode of thinking? Could this march actually change minds?
Whispers about a science-central march began in early January of 2017 following talks of the now-famous Women’s March. What initially began as a non-partisan celebration of science turned partisan for some, as President Donald Trump presented budget plans that included cuts to major scientific funding agencies and institutions.
However, from its inception not all scientists were on-board with the motives of the march. In a NYT OpEd, a coastal geologist cautioned that the March would only cement the divide between scientists versus non-scientists. Another opinion piece published in The New Yorker argued that more grassroots movements on science advocacy, rather than a large-scale march, would be impactful. The most recent rebuttal, published in The Atlantic argued a contrarian idea, that the March for Science was, in fact, not political enough. Despite differing opinion amongst these articles and those in support of the march, one common theme still emerged: Science has value and that ideal must be upheld and promoted.
When I define this value for myself, I think of any way in which the institution of scientific inquiry positively impacts humans at large. But scientific value can take on different meanings for any person. For a third grader, this value might mean the yearly science fair, where peers are encouraged to ask questions. For anyone in a hospital, value means having medical support to enable healthcare systems. In underdeveloped societies, value means that knowledge of biological and chemical systems can drastically shape infrastructure. But for all humans, at a philosophical level, to acknowledge the value of science also means to believe in the value of truth.
So why is it so difficult to pinpoint the value of science in a meaningful, impactful way? The idea of value is critical to marches. From the 1963 March on Washington to the Tax March in April 2017, the movement of large communities can be an effective way to signify that many citizens share a common value. Importantly, these values—like civil rights or taxation transparency—can be seen as a benefit to all citizens, not just some. If the March for Science met success, public values about science—such as STEM education, research funding, and evidence-based policies—could be brought back into light.
These were my thoughts running through my mind as I headed into the March. It was rainy, cold, and my sign was drenched at the rally by the Washington Monument. As a DC local, I’ve come to hate crowds of people in my city, but during the March for Science, I felt differently: Thousands of people in ponchos watched and cheered as scientists and science enthusiasts delivered concise but powerful speeches on the vitality and importance of broad fields of research. Here, finally, was a crowd ready to stand in the rain for their personal notions of scientific value.
Reviews have already pointed out that there was no shortage of clever signs. A friend, a Ph.D. student in Neuropsychology, held a sign that read: “I should be writing a manuscript.” Another friend, a staffer on the Hill, held a sign urging to fund climate science. Her mom, a real estate agent, flew into town just for the march. Compared to my experience in the Women’s March, the science-themed chants were less powerful and faltered quickly. I wondered if this was due to inexperienced marchers or ill-prepared chants. Also unlike the Women’s March, all onlookers from the march’s route cheered on the crowed—there were no protesters in sight. I wondered how a group would protest science, anyway. Signs and chants reminded me—someone who lives and breathes science daily—of science’s value from high-scale physics research to the beauty of running water.
Perhaps due to the breadth of science’s value in all communities, I saw firsthand many visible signs of minority and diversity groups at the March. For every woman, there was a man, and for every chant in English, there was a foreign nationality behind the voice. Others have pointed out that a separate march for these groups might be necessary to achieve justice. (It does, however, befit me to point out that attending a march requires certain privilege, like the resources to travel.)
Even with all the enthusiasm and diversity on hand, I left the march feeling less uplifted than after the Women’s March. The Women’s March made me feel empowered and productive. Reflecting on my inaction after that March, the March for Science served as a reminder for how much work was left to be done, and how many more conversations need to be had. For such a large conglomeration of people, there was little talking amongst marchers. Isn’t it easier to talk—amongst ourselves and others—than it is to stand in the rain for hours?
The lasting effects of the march will be impossible to evaluate immediately. Past marches likely didn’t and couldn’t identify the ripples of their actions until many years later. The results of science work in a similar way. But this is because the focus at present should be on sustaining these ripples into public and influential spheres that extend beyond marchers themselves. In other words, scientists: We need to move beyond our echo chamber. We need to make the value of science known, appreciated, and cultivated in spaces where communities do not have the privilege to march.
Moments after the March ended, an official email was sent by organizers, who urged attendees to write to congressmen and sign petitions. These action items are important and serve to move the needle in some way but there are more active roles we can and should be taking. We need to re-evaluate our own thinking before trying to change others’ minds. We can brainstorm our approaches to community outreach, education and training. We can start public science projects to promote inclusivity in science. Like civil rights and taxation transparency, science is a value that may seem fundamental to us but not for others.
What the organizers haven’t yet explicitly addressed is the lack of inclusivity in science—the idea that while science should be for everyone, often times that is not the case. In an ideal world, I believe inclusivity would mean that marginalized people of all types would be more present and visible in high-ranking scientific positions. This would mean easier access for these populations to get into scientific studies and careers. Take, for instance, the impact of low socioeconomic status and attainment of science education. Without inclusivity of all systematically marginalized communities and political parties, the March for Science risks its ripples never reaching the populations where its value is needed most.
I’m not the only citizen to wear contacts or use toothpaste, or be exposed to the every day inventions that would not have been possible without science and scientists working to solve the world’s challenges. The March for Science showed us that many citizens that recognize a more scientifically-conscious society would benefit politics and societal welfare. This is a definite victory for science and all who benefit from science, but a loss for those who still don’t understand why this march was necessary. The value of marching and advocating for ourselves is huge, but beginning to recognize the need to do this for others beyond our sphere would be even more valuable. The next great scientist might not have even wanted to march.
About the Author
Gabrielle-Ann Torre is a Ph.D. student in Neuroscience at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
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