Moving forward after the march

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Science  05 May 2017:
Vol. 356, Issue 6337, pp. 467
DOI: 10.1126/science.aan5596

On 22 April, many thousands of people took part in demonstrations, teach-ins, museum open houses, and science festivals in hundreds of places around the world—an unparalleled show of support for science. Some journalists have tried to portray the march as yet another political demonstration against President Trump and Congress. Yet, neither appeared to be the target for most marchers—not in the United States and even less so around the world. That the March for Science saw the scientific community and the wider public come together in unprecedented numbers signaled that the day was not just a protest by scientists with concerns about their funding or job security. The multitude of T-shirt slogans, placards, and impassioned remarks by marchers and speakers of all ages, backgrounds, and professions spoke volumes—something serious was going on.


“…a deep concern about the state of science in our societies… propelled people to speak out.”

Scientists are not usually demonstrative. What drove so many to say that they can, should, and will venture into the public square? And what drove so many nonscientists (according to organizers, more than two-thirds of the marchers) to join them earnestly? It may take some time to draw the real message out of the cacophony, if indeed a single message can be discerned. I think it was a deep concern about the state of science in our societies and our governments that propelled people to speak out. To me, 22 April was a manifestation of long-simmering cultural change.

The groundswell of support began on 21 January, when a few young scientists noticed that a concern for science broke out spontaneously in the obviously political Women's March. They called for a nonpartisan March for Science to extol science and its benefits to humanity and to summon a defense of the conditions necessary for science to thrive. They struck a nerve.

At least, in the United States, there is cause for concern when evidence seems merely optional in public debates and policy-making, when many see no future for themselves in science, when federal funding for research and development is less than half the size that it was (relative to the total economy) in the 1960s, or when the free pursuit of scientific questions is hampered by political restrictions on travel or access to information.

The marchers asserted that science offers not only healthier lives, a cleaner Earth, better jobs, food security, a stronger economy, and a better-functioning society through tangible products, but also an improved understanding of people and the world that allows better public policy. Without science, a satisfactory future is impossible. Some marchers yearned for the anchor of reliable knowledge and the stability of orderly, empirical thinking that come from the practice of science.

At this time, when facile explanations of the world's dramatic political events abound, many observers will dismiss the march with explanations that are clear, simple—and probably wrong. That is why, given the energy and real concern that inspired the crowds to turn out for the march, it would be unwise to ignore them and not to channel the energy to address their concerns. One thing I can say is that the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, the publisher of Science), with its mission “to advance science, engineering, and innovation throughout the world for the benefit of all people,” and with a 170-year history of advocacy to fulfill that mission, will not ignore the marchers. AAAS will address their very real concerns.

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