More than 45 years after the first Earth Day helped popularize the need for environmental protections, scientists find themselves marching on Washington, D.C., this weekend in the most unlikely of causes.
Those joining the Science March are, in many respects, supporting what ought to be a core public belief: that facts and breakthroughs discovered by scientific means actually matter and should be used to shape public policies.
A second obvious point to make is that public investments in scientific research are worthwhile and can benefit all of society.
When Earth Day began in 1970, there was no U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act. This year, with all of those landmarks under attack by special interests and President Donald Trump pushing an anti-regulatory agenda, scientists have no choice but to fight back.
Science March events are scheduled at an estimated 500 venues around the world on Saturday, including one at the National Mall in the District of Columbia. Those planning to attend include those who work in science and others who care about its role in public policy.
The state Capitol in Olympia, a reliable stage for protests, is expected to draw 500 people for the beginning of the event at 11 a.m.; participants will walk from there to Heritage Park at 11:45 a.m. where a number of speakers are planned to give talks about what science means and how it serves our communities. Another event is planned in Tacoma.
The smell of worry coming off the scientific community in 2017 is as real as gasoline. Many academic scientists and EPA staffers grew alarmed in January after Trump took office and the EPA halted — at least temporarily — grants and some communications with the public.
Some EPA staffers anticipated the change in administration and began storing federal data on climate change well before it could be taken off federal web sites and hidden away by the new administration.
Scientists are rightly alarmed as well by the new president’s budget proposals. One cut proposed by Trump targets the EPA and zeroes out an account dedicated to the cleanup of Puget Sound (which state funds also support). Other budget proposals took aim at health research.
Adding to discomfort, the Republican president’s appointee to head the EPA is an Oklahoma lawyer who doubts the conclusions of mainstream climate science. His pick to lead the Department of Energy is a former Texas governor committed to the fossil fuel industry. And Trump has continued to make comments expressing doubts, not backed by science, about the risks of vaccines.
All of these actions ignore that scientific research is a necessary government-backed activity. Independent research can move the cause of science forward, helping everyone without relying on vested interests to pay for it.
Past efforts by NASA to explore outer space have led to many scientific discoveries about the nature of our universe. Scientists have gone on to create technologies that are used in aerospace, consumer goods and electronics. The same is true about research into vaccines and other medications that have benefited everyone.
Of course, science can also lead to inconvenient truths, as former Vice President Al Gore said famously of climate change and fossil fuels.
Given the partisan divide over climate change, some may see the march in those terms, and The New York Times noted that some scientists worry their effort will be seen in this light. University of Washington doctoral candidate Caitlin E. Littlefield, who is studying the response of forests to climate change, told the Times: “I think our time would be better spent if we all took a science skeptic out for a cup of coffee to demonstrate that we’re not all that bad.”
That may help but just as important is the high profile the march is giving to science. Lucky Tran, described by the Times as a molecular biologist and science communicator at Columbia University, sees the Science March as a necessary first step, one of many.
“I see the Science March as a coming-out party for scientists who have always been careful about getting involved in political advocacy and activism,” Tran said. “I don’t think we should see this as a one-off event.”
And it should not be a one-off event. Though it is best that scientists avoid partisan stands, it surely is not a partisan act to defend the need for legitimate scientific research that is carried out purely in the public interest without interference from special interests.
Scientists need to stand up for their work and defend it. We should too.