WASHINGTON, D.C.—They marched for science, and at first, they did so quietly. On Saturday, as thousands of people started streaming eastward from the Washington Monument, in a river of ponchos and umbrellas, the usual raucous chats that accompany such protests were rarely heard and even more rarely continued. “Knowledge is power; it’s our final hour,” said six enthusiastic people—to little response. “What do we want? Science! When do we want it? After peer review!” shouted another pocket of marchers—for about five rounds.
Scientists are not a group to whom activism comes easily or familiarly. Most have traditionally stayed out of the political sphere, preferring to stick to their research. But for many, this historical detachment ended with the election of Donald Trump.
His administration has denied the reality of climate change, courted anti-vaccine campaigners, repeatedly stated easily disproven falsehoods, attempted to gag government scientists, proposed enormous budget cuts that would “set off a lost generation of American science,” and pushed for legislation that would roll back environmental and public health protections, pave the way for genetic discrimination, and displace scientific evidence from the policy-making process. Sensing an assault on many fronts—to their jobs, funds, and to the value of empiricism itself—scientists are grappling with politics to an unprecedented extent. “You know something is wrong when people around the world must protest for science,” said Erich Jarvis, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University, to the assembled crowds.
And protest they did. Alongside 610 satellite events taking place around the world, thousands of people—perhaps tens of thousands—gathered in Washington, D.C. They stood for hours on a bleak, wet day. They wore knitted brain hats, lab coats, Facts Matter buttons, shark outfits, and, above all else, raincoats. (“I’m a marine scientist so this is normal for me,” Katy Newcomer told me, from behind a red poncho.) They carried predictably nerdy signs with equations, in-jokes, words spelled out using the chemical abbreviations from the Periodic Table, and oh-so-many puns. Make the Barrier Reef Great Again. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate. This is my sine (with a picture of a sine wave). This is not normal (with a picture of a normal distribution). My head hertz from the frequency of these puns.
Despite the March organizers’ insistence that the event was not partisan, anti-Trump sentiments abounded. One woman had written “Fuck Trump” in binary. Several joked that “Trump is like an atom: he makes everything up.” Nancy Daugherty, an artist, had outdone every other sign-maker by painting a beautiful purple octopus whose tentacles were coiled around Trump, Mike Pence, Scott Pruitt, and Betsy DeVos. (“I thought about doing a toilet bowl emptying into a black hole, but didn’t have space,” she says.) Judy McGuire, a retired biochemist who had come from Maryland added that “Science is under threat. This isn’t a partisan issue but it has been made into one.”
The risk that the march would further polarize America’s view of science, portraying it as a liberal endeavor and diminishing its objectivity, has plagued the event since its inception. Well “science is objective, but it is not neutral,” argued Kellan Baker, a transgender man from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who spoke from the event’s main stage. “Dante said that the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who remain neutral in times of moral crisis.”
Baker was one of 55 consecutive speakers—a quarter more than the 44 at the Women’s March—who rallied the crowd behind a smorgasbord of causes. “We need to ensure that data and evidence, and not uninformed ideology, drive policy-making,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. We should support research that seems to have no immediate relevance to people, said cellular biologist Lydia Villa-Komaroff, who was part of a team in the 1970s that showed how bacteria could make insulin, paving the way for the injections that diabetics take today. We should “hold public officials accountable” for rolling back regulations that ensure clean air and water, said Mustafa Santiago Ali who recently resigned as the head of the EPA’s environmental justice program. As I noted last month, the marchers are apparently marching for everything.
Erich Jarvis called for both political parties to continue their support for scientific research. “Science has always received bipartisan Congessional support, and I’m an example where that support made a difference,” he said. As an African-American, raised in a poor neighborhood of New York City, he benefited from government-funded programs designed to support diversity. “That gave me the opportunity to be a scientist and contribute to this society. If 4 more years go by without this funding, we’ll miss a critical period to train the scientists of tomorrow. We’ll not get a second chance.”
In recent months, diversity has become a sore topic for the March for Science, whose organizers have been variously accused of doing too little or too much to encourage it. Internal infighting had reached a fever point the week before the event, leading to the resignation of half the march’s Diversity and Inclusion committee. But diversity was evident on the day itself—both within the crowd and on the stage.
Caroline Solomon from Gallaudet University, who lost her hearing after a bout of meningitis, spoke about the contributions that deaf scientists have made, from studying birdsong to pioneering the Internet. Mary Jo Ondrechen, a chemist at Northeastern University and a member of the Mohawk Nation, asked the audience to appreciate varying approaches to science including indigenous perspectives in ecology, astronomy, botany, and other fields. “Let’s march not just for science, but for sciences,” she said. Jessica Ware, an entomologist at Rutgers University and a “black female punk-rocker with an LGBTQ family,” said that “insects don’t see borders and they cross walls.” And 13-year-old Taylor Richardson, who raised thousands to send other girls to see Hidden Figures, said, “I’m not just a black girl who’s interested in STEM; I’m a black girl who rocks STEM.” Quoting Muhammad Ali, she added, “You better get used to me.”
But while many figures on stage were scientists or leaders of scientific organizations, most of the people I talked to in the crowd were science enthusiasts, teachers, and parents of sci-curious children. Jeannette Villabon from New Jersey described herself as a “very concerned mom” who had come to “raise awareness of the fact that the climate is changing and the oceans are rising,” she told me, from within a dinosaur costume that she had originally bought to scare her son Nikko. He was there too, sans costume, but with ambitions to study biochemical engineering at college.
Climate change and its denial was a recurring theme for the marchers. Deb Perryman, a science teacher from Elgin High School in Illinois was motivated to march after a school board member tried to discredit her for assigning a project on climate change to her class. “She challenged me to a debate with a climate denier, and did a press release to a local right-wing conservative newspaper,” she says. “When that happened, I thought: I’m going to D.C.” Lillian Shipman, a nurse from Ithaca, had a sign that said “Not a tardigrade? Then you need science,” referencing the nigh-indestructible animals that can survive in almost any environment. “Climate change won’t hurt them,” she told me. “I want to show my son how important science is, and bring to light that issues like climate change aren’t optional.”
In other families, the kids were leading. Kailey Jackett, a high school senior from Pennsylvania, had also come with her family, and a sign that said “The Oceans Are Rising And So Are We.” “I feel like women aren’t represented enough in science, and I’d recently read that by age 8, girls associate science as a male activity,” she tells me. She wants to change that, and plans to be a doctor. Meanwhile, Rachel Curm, a high-school sophomore from Virginia, had her sights set on marine science. She had created an organization called Fighting For Fins to raise money for ocean conservation, and her mom had come in a shark costume to support her.
That’s really encouraging, said Seun Ajiboye, a science policy analyst who had come over from Alexandria, Virginia. “This grassroots support speaks to policy-makers that their constituents are interested in science. It’s a physical and dramatic show of support.” She is also aware of many post-march efforts to mobilize people into taking steps that will establish political power, like visiting their representatives. “The March is just the starting point for engaging a lot of people.”
“This feels a lot more community-oriented than the Women’s March,” said Hannah Armitage, a science writer at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “Everyone is united around a single cause and there’s more space to breathe. The speakers are unifying and everyone is here to learn.”
They certainly seemed to learn how to be a little more comfortable with activism. “Science Not Silence” read many signs, and by the time the front of the march approached Capitol Hill, the sign-carriers had begun to live up to their message. Chants picked up a little. Waves of cheers traveled up and down the marching column. It was as if the March for Science had recapitulated the journey that science itself has taken in the last six months—a crowd of people approaching the seat of political power with awkwardness and hesitancy, becoming progressively louder with each unfamiliar footfall.
And as people started peeling away and heading home, one woman said, “I need to go back to the lab after this.”