Over the past decades, science faced many threats. Research spending as a percent of GDP has decreased from precipitously when accounting for inflation, public funding of research has decreased, and grant funding rates have declined. In the last decade, social media has allowed echo chambers of vocal science denialism to flourish.
Seemingly all at once these trends came to a head in January with a number of steps taken within the government that seemed to existentially threaten some of the underlying principles of science itself– freedom of inquiry, the freedom to share data and ideas, and the freedom to present results that are politically unpopular.
After painting this unhappy scenario of the looming institutionalization of pseudoscience, I have good news. By far most Americans understand that science has a positive effect on society. The “brand” of science is strong, but the robust public enthusiasm for science hasn’t translated to public opinion that aligns with scientific findings and scientific consensus.
Although almost everyone will tell you that they support science, unscientific beliefs about the world abound. The anti-vaccine movement, climate change denial, misinformation being spread about the safety of genetically modified foods are all symptoms of a larger issue: a smorgasbord approach to science where it is considered acceptable to pick and choose which results support an individual’s prior beliefs, and which do not. That is why it isn’t enough to educate people about the results of individual fields and avenues of inquiry. Most people don’t even understand what science is.
The March for Science is an opportunity to bridge the gap between enthusiasm and understanding. A successful march will remain non-violent. It will remain non-partisan. It will have a measurable impact. Hundreds of organizers have self-trained around the world. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers have now become invested in becoming vocal science advocates. They will go to PTA meetings and community centers and science fairs and engage with their communities about science. They’ll call congressional offices, and write op-eds, and pass their advocacy on to a new generation of scientists. Together we have the opportunity to shape a movement.
For decades, science as an enterprise has remained largely silent on politics. The culture of science has been one of civic disengagement. The March for Science was an idea generated independently by hundreds of people around the world at much the same time. It is the product of what might be thought of as a Kuhnian paradigm shift in the culture of science. Scientists have been realizing that we cannot afford to mistake the necessary dispassion of data gathering for dispassion in the civic discourse. Many scientists are now ready to become passionate advocates for science.
Science has always been political- it informs policy, and is done by humans who live in societies shaped by politics. Marching for Science will not polarize science. Marching for Science is taking a stand against the polarization of science. It is a chance for people of diverse backgrounds and experiences, and all levels of science education and involvement in science to come together with common cause: to protect the enterprise of science, to educate themselves and others, and to put a human face to science.
This article was written by Dr. Jonathan M Berman, National co-chair of the March for Science and postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Physiology. The “Beyond The Bench” series features articles written by students and postdoctoral fellows at The University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio. Photo credit: March For Science