Scientists hold rally in Boston protest threats to science

Neuroscientist Shruti Muralidhar, front left, and microbiologist Abhishek Chari, front right, hold placards and chant during a demonstration by members of the scientific community, environmental advocates, and supporters, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017, in Boston. The scientists at the event said they want President Donald Trump's administration to recognize evidence of climate change and take action on various environmental issues. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

BOSTON — Hundreds of scientists and their supporters rallied in historic Copley Square on Sunday, demanding that the Trump administration accept empirical reality on issues such as climate change and highlighting the centrality of objective information to making policy.
 

"We did not politicize science," said Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard science historian who spoke at the rally, which unfolded on a surprisingly warm February day that left the square filled with mud puddles from the melt of a recent blizzard. "We did not start this fight."

"Our colleagues who have been attacked have not been attacked because they did something wrong," Oreskes continued. "They have been attacked because they did something right" - namely, producing information that proved politically inconvenient.

The event, called the Rally to Stand Up for Science, was organized by the Natural History Museum, ClimateTruth.org and a number of other groups, including the Union of Concerned Scientists. It was timed to coincide with the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), also occurring in downtown Boston.

This timing - along with the science-intensive community in an area that features Harvard, MIT and numerous other universities - probably helped to ensure a good part of the turnout.

"I feel that we're in this public relations battle right now, and we need to recast our work as scientists, not as dispassionate data junkies, but as people that care about the world around us," said Beka Economopoulos, one of the march organizers, who is with the Natural History Museum.

As these were scientists marching, the event naturally featured some colorful signs, reading "Objective Reality Exists," "Make America Smart Again," and "Poetry Nerds for Science." The organizers of the event promised that they would provide not only signs but also "lab coats" to those who attended.

"Science and education are the future, and denying that denies us a future," said Perry Hatchfield, a PhD student in physics at the University of Connecticut, who held an "Immigrants Make Science Great" sign.

While the event's Facebook page didn't explicitly attack Trump, it did say that this science-focused rally would be "the first one since anti-science forces and climate deniers have taken office." Scientists also rallied outside the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco in December shortly after Trump's election.

"We represent a range of political views here. But what we are united in is our confidence in science and evidence-based investigation," said Anne Rookey, an IT manager from the area, who held a sign reading, "Science is Real."

Still, it's difficult to separate the newfound energy within the scientific community from the advent of the Trump administration. Those organizing the event cited not only the issue of climate change, on which Trump and his appointees have often challenged the scientific consensus that it is mostly caused by humans, but also charged that there has been "muzzling" of scientists and that research data has been deleted by his administration.

However, many science policy watchdogs and observers do not agree that the Trump administration has yet gone beyond what any other new U.S. administration might do when it comes to getting communications organized at different federal agencies and figuring out how each will disseminate its message.

Restrictions on immigration, the fear of a U.S. talent drain and concerns about hits to the funding of research also loomed large at the Boston event. "We have to be concerned about the best and brightest being kept in our country - already France has offered to have scientists go over into their country if they aren't welcomed in ours," said Emily Southard, a march organizer with ClimateTruth.org.

"And you can see just when you walk around the floor of the AAAS that there are other nations interested in recruiting some of our top scientists," Southard said.

Organizers had said that they expected several hundred marchers at the event - both scientists and non-scientist supporters - and the turnout appeared to support that assessment. The Facebook page for the event listed 1,800 people who said they would be attending.

The event, which covered much of Copley Square, seemed to be a promising sign for a far larger March for Science event, scheduled for April 22, Earth Day. That event has more than 800,000 Facebook group members at present and, if such momentum continues, could lead to an unprecedented demonstration by scientists against the new administration.

Marches aren't the only way that the science community has found support since the election - the AAAS told The Washington Post that since the election, it has seen "more than double" the number of new memberships in comparison with a comparable period in 2015-2016.

Yet there are tensions within the science world over these marches, and especially the April 22 event. They were apparent Saturday inside the nearby AAAS annual meeting. There, hundreds packed into a panel discussion, hosted by the Union of Concerned Scientists, titled "Defending Science and Scientific Integrity in the Age of Trump."

The panel included John Holdren, former Obama science adviser, and Jane Lubchenco, former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. No speaker directly opposed the march, but Holdren did voice his worry, in a general sense, about whether messages emanating from the science world at this moment would be strategically coordinated or constructive.

"If we let a thousand flowers bloom, one liability is that we will end up with a whole less than the sum of the parts," Holdren said.

When an audience questioner asked whether the planned April 22 march would lead to scientists being perceived as elitist or partisan, Lubchenco advised that the community should "encourage people who aren't scientists to march as well. Have it be a celebration of science."

Yet it was hard to deny the raw emotion in the room - and the potential for energized activism. One audience questioner even went so far as to suggest that the United States was becoming like fascist Germany, leading to a strong rebuttal from physicist Kurt Gottfried, one of the founders of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who was born in Austria in 1929.

"I have experienced what you are talking about," Gottfried said. "And I want to warn you against overstating the case. I think the United States is not Germany or Austria in 1938."

Back at the march, Hatchfield, the physics student, said he was confident that the pro-science movement already afoot could build from here.

"It's about perseverance," he said, "and that if you actually stick with a message and continue to stand for it, the movement will grow."

 

Members of the scientific community, environmental advocates, and supporters demonstrate Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017, in Boston, to call attention to what they say are the increasing threats to science and scientific research under the administration of President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Members of the scientific community, environmental advocates, and supporters demonstrate Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017, in Boston, to call attention to what they say are the increasing threats to science and scientific research under the administration of President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

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