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As the March for Science approaches, many scientists are still struggling to form an opinion on the march as the event itself continues to struggle with its own identity.
Born shortly after the Women’s March, the March for Science quickly exploded into a movement with over 100 supporting organizations and over 500 satellite marches. Despite this, increased support has been accompanied by controversy. In addition to concerns about mixing politics with science, criticism about the lack of organizational diversity and inclusion has been strong.
First, the idealistic view of science as a completely apolitical process is incorrect. Science as a process of discovery is subject to the institutions through which it is conducted. In a recent interview in the SPS Observer, scientist Frank Rosenthal, who participated in the activism on Columbia’s campus in the 1960s, illustrates the difference by saying, “The charge on the electron is not political.”
Politics come into play, Frank argues, in “What questions [are you asking?] Who’s doing it? Who wants it to get done, and what are they using the results for?”
Science is sponsored by institutions that have inherent political biases. Government, industry and professional societies all have their own political agendas, which directly or indirectly interact with scientific objectives.
Even scientists who are comfortable with the intersection of politics and their profession are not satisfied with the march. In addition to fears of increasing polarization, organizational turmoil over how to handle diversity has turned many participants away.
The march’s poorly-constructed (and ever-changing) diversity statements have been accompanied by insensitive social media posts. On Twitter, a deleted and cringeworthy tweet from @ScienceMarchDC read, “Tomorrow is Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day and ladies – engineers or not – we want to hear from you! Why is the gender gap so large?”
Ouch. Maybe a better approach is to show the the peer-reviewed literature to explain the well-documented gender gap in science.
The resistance to address diversity is perhaps a result of the organizers’ own misunderstanding of both science and politics. March organizers insisted early on the march was not political.
One co-chair, in an interview the The Chronicle of Higher Education, said “This isn’t about scientists. It’s about science.”
However, effective science requires collaboration from a diverse group of individuals. Life experience affects how we go about problem solving. Therefore, concerns of equity, inclusion and access are relevant to science because science, like the march, is political.
For many scientists, this is their first move of political activism. I have no desire to discourage that engagement. The March for Science is a starting point – it shows us how much work there is to be done. At the very least, the March for Science has amplified the important dialogue about the connection between politics and science and how certain groups become marginalized by this relationship.
I can only encourage individuals to make thoughtful decisions about how they intend to promote science in society. For myself, I will be working instead with the Physics Department on Academic Signing Day to celebrate the achievements of incoming freshmen. Now more than ever, whether or not it involves marching, political activism from scientists is critical.
Jacob Robertson is a senior physics student at APSU. He is interested in using outreach and policy to narrow the gap between scientists and the public. @jacob_plus