The “March for Science”

by Adam Shapiro (Birkbeck-University of London)

On 22 April this year, close to a million people participated in the worldwide event known as the “March for Science.” In terms of the number of people involved, the science march might be the largest event in the history of science. Many of us may disagree with this description, depending on how we want to define both “science” and “event.” But while fixation on crowd size is a hallmark of the current political climate in Washington, DC, where the “main” science march took place, for historians of science the science march has importance beyond its mere numbers. The science march is not the same kind of science event that the publication of the Origin of Species, or the discovery of gravitational waves is, but its importance is found in how it reflects on the interactions among scientific practitioners, science enthusiasts and allies, and state entities and policymakers.

It is too soon to answer historical questions about the effects of the march on scientific practice, or whether or not the march reflects a significant change in the relationship between scientific practitioners and the wider public. But as historians we can already make efforts to understand the social, political, and personal factors that led a group of organizers, marchers, and critics to create this massive science spectacle.

To that end, I began conducting oral history interviews with organizers of the DC march and several satellite marches, march participants, and critics, starting in early March and continuing after the march took place. These interviews (approximately 70 so far) mostly conducted via Skype or telephone, are going to be archived and transcribed by the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s Center for Oral History. Once processed, they will be a resource that does not represent a complete account of the march, but they do sample some of the diversity of opinions about what it means to act “for science.” In many cases they also provide a snapshot of the everyday life of scientists and science allies for whom the march was a moment of confluence. Ideally, this will become an archive that speaks not just to the march event itself, but also to the wider nature of science at this moment in history.

It has been widely reported that the march began with a “throwaway comment” made on Reddit saying that there needed to be a “Scientists’ March on Washington” in response to news that federal websites were removing references to climate change. I have interviewed the person who posted that comment, as well as several other people involved in the first few days of planning. This origin story has a certain dramatic cachet, reinforcing the idea that the march was a totally sui generis event born out of grassroot frustration with the Trump administration. It emphasizes the contingent nature of a history that implies that the march would not have happened at all were it not for one person happening upon that comment and then being inspired.

But there are additional origin stories that explain how several people connected on a variety of social media and began to discuss different forms of science-led activism that coalesced into the science march. Interviews with many of the march’s early organizers, including some who did not remain part of the march organization, reveal a more robust origin story. This is not to suggest that something like a science march was inevitable, but that historical cause and effect comes on a spectrum between irresistible social forces and want-of-a-nail style accidents.

During the three months between the start of march organizing and the march itself, the science march organizers encountered a variety of internal and external challenges. Several of these revolved around questions of diversity and inclusion in both the execution of the march as an event and in the expression of goals and values of the march. For many involved in the march, supporting science was inseparable from supporting the people who conduct science. Whereas many people were concerned about risks to federal funding, interference in STEM education, and the continued legality of some kinds of biomedical research, some march organizers (and critics) also observed that many scientists are affected by changes to immigration policy, are at risk of discrimination or harassment based on race, gender, or disability status; or are concerned with the historical and contemporary use of scientific research to justify or exacerbate social injustice. Discussion over how much the science march should address these facts became subsumed under a larger rhetoric over whether or not science was “political.”

To people working in the history of science, there are a few among us who would still argue that science is not “political” and is simply a bias-free process of discovering more and more value-neutral facts about nature. Science has always been political. But, in part, the debate over changes to the march’s diversity statements reflected several different meanings of the word “political.” For some people, “not political” was framed as not partisan (and as non-profit organizations became supporters of the march, the need to avoid explicitly partisan advocacy became part of the professionalization of the march itself.) In other instances, the concerns of underrepresented minorities in sciences was cast as “political” while advocacy of a status quo that contributes to underrepresentation was not. In part, this issue became a proxy for an even wider discussion of what the “science” was that people were supporting.

There is an important story to be told about how the march became professionalized and how those in charge shaped its identity for itself. But the story of the event is not contained by its organizers and institutional affiliates. I interviewed several organizers of satellite marches, in the US and overseas, many of whom operated with substantial autonomy. I also spoke to several people who had no hand in organizing either the main march or a local one, but who planned to attend one. What the act of marching meant to these people, what it meant to marchers to support science, was a varied and fascinating mix of ideas. Any public spectacle quickly evolves into an event whose meaning and purpose is reinterpreted and remade by its participants. The science march, perhaps because people agreed to have it before they even agreed what it was about, exemplifies this.

In a year that has seen political and social norms and conventional wisdom upturned across the globe, it is uncertain where science and its history will fit into the picture. My hope is that recording some of the biggest event in science’s history in nearly-real time will give us some new data to help address that challenge.