When it comes to fervent political activism, scientists may not pop to mind as the most likely group of folks to take a stand. However, the April 22nd March for Science in Washington, D.C.—along with more than 600 satellite marches—has revealed not only how passionate scientists are about the importance of their work, but also their exasperation at their field being continually bashed by the Trump White House. Inspired by the momentous January 21st Women’s March on Washington, which reverberated into a global movement, scientists and civilians alike turned out all over the country—even at the North Pole—on Earth Day, no less, to express outrage at the current administration’s anti-science policies, and to celebrate science in all its incarnations.
The organizers of a satellite march in Silicon Valley were driven in part by an urgent need to cross the political divide, particularly with the looming threat of climate change, the ravages of which won’t discriminate by party, and to encourage inclusivity in the sciences. Not only an infamous bastion of technology and engineering, Silicon Valley is home to a wide range of groundbreaking science-focused companies whose work ranges from biomedical research to climatology. And while it leans left on the political spectrum, the organizers wanted the march to appeal to the widest audience possible.
Stephanie and Lyne at the Silicon Valley protest. When asked why they they marched, Stephanie said, “Science matters and climate change is real.” Lyne said, “Science and truth are essentials to life. The people in charge are a threat to both.”
“We need to make sure we’re representing everyone in these movements, because people need to hear these important messages,” said march creator Jennie Richardson, a Ph.D. researcher working on an HIV vaccine, a co-organizer of the Silicon Valley event, along with former TV journalist Marika Krause. These messages include—beyond the aforementioned dire necessity to address and act on climate change—the need for funding for scientific research, so that accurate information will be available to influence policy decisions.
“Part of my inspiration [for the march] is that there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what science is. It’s a process, a toolkit, not a product,” Richardson says. She doesn’t entirely blame the public for their confusion, but she does indict the 24-hour news cycle, with its emphasis on shouting heads launching partisan salvos instead of evidence, and false balance over facts. Richardson also feels that there’s a long history of anti-intellectualism in the U.S. that often causes scientists to be hesitant to speak out, lest they come across as elitist. Hopefully, she says, the marches can help to communicate “the very important role that science plays in a healthy democracy.”
(From left to right) Preschool teacher Maria Lazo’s sign features PBS’s Sid the Science Kid; Vienna, age 12, is an aspiring neurologist, and Sean, age 14, wants to be a psychiatrist; Chemist Peggy Tao says, “Science is life. Everything we do is rooted in science.”
Their three goals—engage the community in celebrating science, call for evidence-based policy making, and promote inclusivity in science—were in full effect and on full display, as a diverse, all-ages group of civilians with clever signs mingled with scientists on a route beginning at San Jose City Hall, followed by a rally with speakers and exhibits.
Local resident Pamela Underwood, holding a sign that read “The science of today is the technology of tomorrow,” said, “I’m here to insure that policy is based on science, and to restore scientific data that’s been taken down from government websites.”
There was a common outcry among the march’s participants against #alternativefacts, that infamous, meme-worthy statement made by White House spokesperson Kellyanne Conway as she tried to explain away Trump’s falsehoods. Indeed, alternative facts are a perfect metaphor for the anti-science messaging of Trump’s administration, which has thumbed its nose at climate change, healthcare, and environmental protections through proposed budget cuts, greenlighting of oil pipelines, and threatening to pull out of the carbon emissions-reducing Paris Accord.
Rosanna Lee, a public school teacher, and Walter Lee, a biochemist.
“It’s a really scary time,” says Krause. “I think that’s why you’re seeing [scientists] come forward and step up; they’re feeling under attack.”
But when science is threatened, it’s not just scientists who stand to lose. “Everybody benefits on the planet when we support science,” said Jeff (who declined to give his last name), a San Jose resident who sat proudly in his wheelchair beneath a poster showing a garish, gaping cartoon Trump and the words “Denying science is fracking crazy.”
A recurring theme, whether on signs or in conversation, went something like this: Do you like your cell phone, antibiotics, (insert almost any invention or medical breakthrough here)? You can thank science for it.
Peggy Yao, a retired Silicon Valley chemist emphasized this point: “Everything we do is rooted in science.”
Despite the crowd’s palpable aggravation at Trump and the Republican party, Krause and Richardson argued that the march was not a partisan event. “I think the fact that there are more than 500 marches around the world speaks to this not being just one party [prompting] this [to] happen. This is a valid movement to say we support science, believe in the scientific process, and the important role science plays in our culture,” said Krause.
Krause hopes the momentum of this march will carry on long after the event, and that it provided people with a way to “direct their energy into positive, productive and meaningful action” that’s based on facts, not fear or falsehoods.
Ben Pederson, age 8, said, “”Science is important and you should always study science.”
Photos by Jordan E. Rosenfeld