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Should I Attend the Science March?

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By Alex Chattwood, Communication, Education and Outreach Co-Editor

A debate is stirring within the pro-science community over the April 22 March for Science (M4S), a 52-day-old collective that claims, “to support and safeguard the scientific community.” As a one-time scientist turned science educator, I want to support science and scientific ways of thinking however I can. But, as someone who isn’t politically savvy, I feel confused by articles warning of the potential negative consequences of marching, in addition to contradictory messages from the M4S movement itself. To help me decide whether or not to participate in the Vancouver M4S, I invited supporters from both sides of the issue to share their opinions with me.

 

“Trump has taken a stance; we should fight back.” — Kristina Charania

 

“The new US administration has no use for science,” says Stephanne Taylor, a long-time advocate for evidence-based policy who will march in Ottawa. “They’ve cut funding to the EPA, NOAA…researchers that work very closely with Canadian scientists.” Indeed, proposed cuts to funding, agency communication freezes and White House rhetoric have combined to suggest that scientific evidence will not be as important in policy decisions going forward. This is why the M4S was born on Reddit, and it’s why Kristina Charania, communications manager for the Vancouver M4S, tells me, “Trump has taken a stance; we should fight back.”

 

“[the march] could skew the moderates away from science.” — Lauren Borja

 

But, should we fight back? Critics of the M4S occupy a spectrum from those that think it’s simply not needed, to those fearful of irreparable consequences, to those feeling other issues warrant more attention. During our interview, Lauren Borja, a US scientist who has recently moved to Canada, echoed concerns over making the use of scientific evidence a partisan issue, saying the march “could skew the moderates away from science.”

Where some see political ramifications, others see scientific ones. Taylor, a veteran organizer of science marches against the Harper government, is positive, citing the “lasting media impact” from the Death of Evidence rally in 2012. She sees the upcoming march as a way to stand in solidarity with US scientists while showing the Trudeau government that Canadians “don’t take the new Canadian stance on evidence-based policy for granted.” There are wider implications for Trump’s policies too, Taylor argues: “science is international; climate doesn’t stop at the border.” In other words, what happens in the US will be felt in Canada.

 

“…science is international; climate doesn’t stop at the border.” — Stephanne Taylor

 

Borja, who attended the 2017 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting in mid-February, tells me one audience member half-joked that the worst outcome for the M4S would be that “people might just not show up.” Only a month later, that outcome now seems unlikely. With marches in over 360 locations worldwide, organizers expect a large turnout. In Vancouver alone, 1800 people are registered on the closed Facebook group without any significant media push having taken place.

Given this building momentum, it’s surprising that the goals of the M4S aren’t yet clear. In an article for The Atlantic, Ed Yong counted 21 goals differing “substantially in content and approach” posted on the M4S website and Facebook. The organizers are clearly scrambling to craft a message that embodies the values of all the people that want to march for science. My advantage here is that I only need to understand my own reasons. As Taylor reminds me, “science is not a monolith.” It’s made of individuals who have their own motivations.

 

 [Science is] made of individuals who have their own motivations.

 

So, what would it take to get me to hold a sign aloft and march through the streets of Vancouver in the name of science? Lauren, Kristina and Stephanne all make persuasive scientific, political, and social justice cases. But, what are my reasons? What can I offer to this movement? By coincidence, on the same day I conducted my interviews for this post I attended a talk by science communicator Eddie Goldstein. In front of 150 science educators, Goldstein spoke of the importance of something he likes to call “scientific spirit”. Careful to separate his term from the more nebulous “spirit of science”, he said that scientific spirit is founded in an individual’s curiosity about the world and a belief that questions can be answered with logic and experiments. While this might be a weak political argument for supporting the M4S, it’s a hugely powerful philosophical one, at least to me. Inspiring these values in children and youth is literally why I do the work I do. If that’s under threat, and I think it is, I have to march.

 

Header image:  Richard Webster used with permission

Editor’s note: This post has been edited to correct the spelling of Kristina Charania’s name. We apologize for the error.  (3/16/2017)

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