Saturday 22nd April 2017 is the day when scientists and their supporters from around the world will gather for an unusual event, the “March for Science”. Some questions we need to consider: Why do I say that it is unusual? What are the factors driving the March? Will it have any effect?
This is an unusual march. Just think about it. All kinds of people go on marches in support of all sorts of causes, but have you ever heard of scientists going on a march dedicated to science before? I have been a scientist for over forty years now and I can’t think of one. This is not to say that individual scientists don’t go on marches, and occasionally I have seen delegations of scientists on climate change marches. A few high profile scientists, like James Hansen, have engaged in marches and demonstrations, and even risked arrest, but these are the exceptions.
But a whole march at a global scale dedicated to science? Never! The truth is that I rate scientists as among the least likely people to engage in marching. They are hugely dedicated people, and getting them out of the laboratory or the field is usually next to impossible. If they are working in areas that impact on human society they much prefer to publish papers and let the data do the talking. Marches may be fine for other people, but the average scientist will claim a shortage of time, or that it is not their role in life. So I have been on just two marches in my entire life: the large march in London before the Copenhagen climate change meeting in 2009; and a much smaller one, again about climate change, when we were on sabbatical in Spain in 2014. I don’t think I am unusual.
So why the change? What has motivated thousands of scientists around the world to abandon the lab and the field and to do something really unusual like going on a march? Well the simple answer is “Donald Trump”, and indeed he has had a role to play in this, but it is more complex than that. For some years now across the Western democracies there has been an increasing distrust of “experts”. This distrust is not confined to scientists, and experts from other fields like economics and history, have also come under attack. Often the problem has arisen when expert advice is in conflict with a particular political position or economic driver. Sometimes, sadly, religious views have contributed to the problem. So we have seen scientists attacked on a whole range of topics including: evolution, smoking and cancer, acid rain, climate change, GM crops, and immunization. Throughout the campaigns for the EU referendum in the UK and the presidential campaign in the US, experts were often seen as a bad thing. Since the US election the Trump administration has already signalled that it intends to cut scientific research, and particularly climate science. The March 2017 House of Representatives Science Committee, in which only Dr Michael Mann represented the 97% consensus position on climate change, was just another indication of how bad things are looking for climate science in the US.
Following the successful women’s marches a few scientists in the US had the idea of a March for Science, and that has rapidly spread to become a global movement. It is hard to judge what effect the March will have. It may go some way towards publicizing the overall problem. It may help scientists develop networks to fight against the distrust of science and the cuts in the US. Maybe politicians will take notice. Possibly it will help in ways we cannot yet see.
The Book of Proverbs has more mentions of wisdom than any other book in the Bible. Some might well feel that the words of Proverbs 2:12 are appropriate: “Wisdom will save you from the ways of wicked men, from men whose words are perverse.” In a similar vein Proverbs 10:23 says: “A fool finds pleasure in wicked schemes, but a person of understanding delights in wisdom.” Nowhere in the Bible is intelligence, wisdom or the knowledge of experts maligned. It is a sad state of affairs that in 2017 we have reached a time when a March for Science is thought necessary. Perhaps the most appropriate quote for the March on 22nd April is from Proverbs 1:19-21: “Out in the open wisdom calls aloud, she raises her voice in the public square; on top of the wall she cries out, at the city gate she makes her speech.” Scientists will be “out in the open” and very definitely “in the public square”. I will be there!
Dr Martin J. Hodson
JRI Operations Director
PS Martin went on the March in London and his account is posted at “I went on the March for Science”