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Why these people are joining — or skipping — the March for Science

BY , , and   April 21, 2017 at 12:04 AM EDT
The March for Science logo. Photo by March for Science

The March for Science logo. Photo by March for Science

On April 22, more than 500 cities will host a March for Science, a series of political demonstrations to champion “robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity,” according to the official website. Washington, D.C., will serve as the epicenter for the demonstrations, billed as a response to those who challenge widely accepted facts and scientific consensus across the globe.

Yet the marches represent more than a rebuke of climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers. Saturday will mark a banner moment for a group not known for jumping into the political fray. Farmers have been far more likely to protest in Washington than scientists and science supporters over the last 50 years in the U.S. This inexperience came through in some of the March’s organizational road blocks, in the forms of infighting over inclusivity and counterfeit merchandise. There are also some scientists who outright disagree with the politicization of a field steeped in objectivity.

But millions of scientists, doctors, teachers, science lovers and ordinary folks have also voiced their support for the march across social media; organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science — the world’s largest scientific society — have also thrown their weight behind the movement.

Some of those people responded to a NewsHour call on social media for people to share why they support, or don’t support, the March for Science. We received replies from more than 1,200 people — filled with opinions as diverse as science itself. Here are some of their stories.

Editor’s note: Out of the more than 1,200 responses we got to our callout across platforms, 19 were from people who said they do not support the March for Science and will not attend. Our profiles here reflect that breakdown.

The anthropologist-turned-teacher who says “politics is power, and science is immensely powerful”

Inside a greenhouse on the top floor of Cypress Hills Community School in East Brooklyn, New York, students learn about hydroponics, composting and how to navigate their fears from a number of volunteers and teachers, including 52-year-old Yvonne Lassalle. Lassalle, an anthropologist-turned-science teacher and greenhouse coordinator, believes science and math do more than prepare students to obtain higher paying jobs.

“Students who do not understand how the world works and who are not comfortable with using the methods of science are in the danger of being disempowered by others who do understand these things and who can use them in positions of this advantage,” Lassalle said.

Yvonne Lassalle, science teacher (left with glasses) with staff, parents, current and former students of the Cypress Hills Community School in the Cypress Hills Greenhouse.

Yvonne Lassalle, science teacher (left with glasses) with staff, parents, current and former students of the Cypress Hills Community School in the Cypress Hills Greenhouse.

Take health care, for example. If students become comfortable with the scientific method and how it factors into clinical trials, she believes they can more easily decipher the safety of drugs advertised in TV commercials or know what types of questions to ask their doctors when discussing prescriptions.

Her recommendation is greater access to science in communities, through education programs like New York’s Urban Advantage Program, to show communities that empirical evidence doesn’t necessarily challenge different worldviews, like religious ones, but rather offers solutions to everyday fears.

Lassalle will join New York City’s science march because she believes “politics is power, and science is immensely powerful.” She feels partisan concerns over scientific pursuits, like climate change and vaccination policy, happen because many people feel that science challenges their core beliefs and makes them feel fundamentally unsafe about who they are.

The neuroscience major who’s worried about her career

Emalie McMahon, 22, a neuroscience major set to graduate this year from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, disagrees with this idea of politicizing science because she feels her future depends on the bipartisan support. McMahon is set to start a job at a laboratory next year and worries the march may be perceived as left-leaning or elitist by constituents from right-leaning states.

Emalie McMahon

Emalie McMahon, neuroscience major

“My worst-case scenario is one where the scientific community becomes further alienated from the population at large — that more people would see science as an opposition to their everyday beliefs, their religion or their political beliefs,” said McMahon, who says she doesn’t identify as conservative.

Her trepidation is backed by polling. Seven out of 10 Americans believe “government investments in basic research, engineering and technology and in basic scientific research pay off in the long run,” according to the Pew Research Center. But hot button issues — like climate change policy, GMOs, evolution and vaccine — split the nation in two. Even Republican academics feel uncomfortable openly expressing their political views, as tensions grow among the electorate.

McMahon fears growing rifts might deepen opposition of scientific funding in the long run. She’ll be skipping Knoxville’s march.

The man who went from rust belt to Berkeley, thanks to federally-funded science grants

Noah Whiteman, 40, agrees with McMahon, but he still plans to march.

Noah Whiteman, biology professor

Noah Whiteman, biology professor

Whiteman grew up in a rural, white area in the rust belt, surrounded by “the kind of people who voted for Donald Trump, frankly.” After deciding to be a scientist, he got a grant from the National Science Foundation and a fellowship from the National Institute of Health. “My route through life was supported by grants and fellowships from the federal government,” he said.

“Without those, as someone from the rust belt, I would have never got to where I am,” said Whiteman, who is now a professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley. But he thinks science should be stripped of political bias if at all possible, since research has historically received support from both sides of the aisle.

Whiteman thinks of it as “a privilege and an honor” to have access to taxpayer-funded federal grants, so he always tries to be sure that his research will have a positive impact on the greater good. “Untold advances have come from researching nature for its own sake,” he said.

But overall, Whiteman is growing worried for the future of scientific advances because of the changing political climate. “I see this as an existential threat to the United States, I really do,” said Whiteman, who will march for science in San Francisco. “I am going out there as a representative of science and saying ‘listen to us, we are afraid for our future.’”

The Texas lab tech who says science is already political

Roland Falcon is a 30-year-old Senior Lab Technician at an oil company in Houston, Texas. Falcon has had a love for science from a very young age, when he would take things apart in his home just to see how they worked, something his parents “didn’t quite know how to deal with.”

Roland Falcon, oil company lab technician

Roland Falcon, oil company lab technician

“Houston is definitely a city that [supports science]. We have the space program here, we have a lot of oil and gas, a lot of energy. You can’t throw a rock in Houston without finding a scientist, or at least an engineer.”

Falcon, who is a member of the organizing committee for the Houston march, said his support for the protest started when the Trump administration announced its proposed budget, which cut heavily into funding for scientific research. Budget Chief Mick Mulvaney said when the budget was released that cuts would reflect the president’s world view by reducing spending in areas such as climate change and alternative energies.

READ MORE: Trump’s budget cuts drastically into science and health programs

“People these days seem to be viewing science through the veil of their own opinion,” Falcon said. “They seem to be denying the fact that results are coming out about climate change, about the environment, about social issues … they seem to be perfectly fine just dismissing it because they disagree with it, as opposed to actually trying to disprove it or find facts against it.”

When asked about whether the March for Science might politicize science, Falcon believes that science is already political, based on what some congressmen are saying.

“I think locally, the big problem is that we have [Rep.] Lamar Smith from Texas who is the head of the House science committee. He’s trying to put out rules about regulating scientific funding. He wants all the money that the government puts out to go through his committee. It’s kind of hard to say that it’s not already political.”

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The psychology professor who thinks perspective is everything

Erlanger Turner, 36, has loved medicine since he was a child. In college, he was a pre-med student majoring in microbiology but shifted his studies to psychology when he fell in love with the subject and its impact on children.

Now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Houston-Downtown and a licensed clinical psychologist, Turner treats adolescents with a range of behavioral and emotional issues like ADHD.

Erlanger "Earl" Turner, psychology professor

Erlanger “Earl” Turner, psychology professor

But he’s also taken on an advocacy role and traveled multiple times to Washington, D.C., to speak with lawmakers about how psychological research may impact their legislation. In November, he participated in a congressional briefing with the American Psychological Association on the psychological impacts of police violence.

“To make the necessary changes to improve police training, we have to use our psychological knowledge of science,” Turner said. “That would actually improve relations between police and community members and reduce the negative psychological impacts like stress and anxiety among those different communities as well.”

Turner plans to march in Houston on Saturday. And while he understands concerns that the March for Science may politicize the subject, he feels it is important that legislators hear demonstrators’ perspectives.

“I think it is important not only as a psychologist, but also as a citizen, that we really do put some pressure on our representatives to make sure that they are doing what they were put in office to do in terms of looking out for their constituents.”

The biotech research associate who worries about job stability

Hil Perkin’s love for biology was born out of tragedy. When she was 10, her grandmother developed a disease called acquired pure megakaryocytic aplasia; her body stopped producing blood platelets for no explainable reason.

“It was a really bad time for my family because she was really important to all of us,” Perkins, now 32, said. “I basically decided to do something that would make sure that no one else would ever have to go through a similar experience.”

Now a research associate at the biotech firm Covaris, Perkins regularly works on projects funded by the National Institutes for Health. But she’s concerned about what may happen if the new administration’s rhetoric on science funding cuts comes to pass.

“People who have been making policy and decisions have been doing it without any regard to how it will affect those of us who do the science.”

“If funding for NIH and other government agencies that support or provide funding for science are cut, that’s going to reduce the number of available jobs for myself and other scientists,” she said. “And there’s already enough competition for jobs as it is.”

The NIH budget has stagnated and failed to keep pace with inflation since 2003.

By marching in Boston on Saturday, she hopes to inspire lawmakers to take science knowledge seriously.

“People who have been making policy and decisions have been doing it without any regard to how it will affect those of us who do the science,” she said.

The teacher who worries “no one wants​ to make the investment in a K-12 pipeline for science and technology”

Sondra Lawson’s interest in science started when she was a child, when she read National Geographic and watched PBS documentaries. Today, Lawson, 49, has been teaching science for 15 years. She said that she will march Saturday in downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico because of her students at Jimmy Carter Middle School.

Lawson said that local funding for science education has been lacking in New Mexico. Her classroom hasn’t been able to receive new textbooks and lab materials. Because science is a constantly changing field, up-to-date textbooks are a necessity for classrooms across the country.

Sandraw Lawson

Sandra Lawson, science teacher.

“Everyone at the national level talks about how STEM careers are the way of the future but the truth is that no one wants​ to make the investment in a K-12 pipeline for science and technology,” she said.

Lawson said that her community is multifaceted in its approach to science. With its proximity to Los Alamos National Laboratory, she says that people interact with scientists every day, but because the area is also economically depressed, people sometimes aren’t aware of the great things happening in their area.

“I see sometimes that my students have a disconnect between what they see in the everyday world and what those scientists do,” Lawson said. “I try everyday to say ‘the technology you’re walking around with in your pocket … that was developed by somebody!’ and if they understand it, they can be part of the future.”

The doctoral candidate who’s fighting to stress the value of research

Alejandra Maldonado, environmental scientist

Alejandra Maldonado, environmental scientist

Alejandra Maldonado, a doctoral candidate at Texas A&M University’s wildlife and fisheries program, didn’t come from a long line of academics.

“Both of my parents are immigrants and my dad only went to school, I think, until 8th grade. My mom got her GED,” Maldonado, 32, said. “To me, a career as a scientist wasn’t something I considered until I was in college.”

When Maldonado started college, she wanted to become a veterinarian; she’d loved animals her whole life. But then she read an article about a pesticide causing frogs to change sex and decided to study the environment in a broader context.

“I thought it was shocking because I had never heard of anything like that,” she said. “This was in my drinking water. So that’s when I knew what I wanted pursue ecotoxicology for graduate school.”

Now, she’s worried that the political climate might mean that politicians won’t consider research in ecotoxicology before making environmental policy — and that her chances for a job post-graduation are threatened. For those reasons, she will attend the March for Science in Seattle.

“In an ideal world science wouldn’t be polarized or political, but it has always been that way,” Maldonado said. “And science should drive policy, so it should be political. What we want is evidence-based policy.”

The Earth scientist who says there have always been people who didn’t believe the scientific consensus

Dr. Shelley Petroy used to have discussions — or arguments, depending on how you look at it — about science. She would debate the veracity of evolution and climate change with friends and family, but now she thinks that marching for science is a better way of garnering political support for something more simple: the scientific method.

As an earth scientist who does business development for an aerospace company, Petroy is especially concerned over the lack of political support addressing climate change. There have always been people who didn’t believe the scientific consensus, but Petroy notes the increasing importance of scientific awareness.

“It was the same thing with evolution as well,” Petroy, 55, said. “But with evolution I thought ‘well, it’s science, it happened whether they accept that or not.’ But with climate change, if you don’t accept it, if you don’t push for policies, if you don’t push for change, it has a lot more dire consequences than not accepting the fact of evolution.” So Petroy felt like she had to get involved.

Shelley Petroy, earth scientist

Shelley Petroy, earth scientist

Petroy will be driving with a cohort of fellow scientists from Boulder, Colorado to Denver, where there is a bigger March for Science. In Boulder, “you can’t throw a rock without hitting a Ph.D.,” she said

Petroy believes that scientists can be resistant to politics. But realistically, politics are intertwined with scientists’ goals.

“I don’t know how scientists can sit back and not work within the political system, because this is the system that we have been given” Petroy said. “To prioritize and fund research, and then use the results of that research to potentially inform policy.”

The civil engineer who thinks the March’s approach is too aggressive — like “using a hammer” to bash out moderates

For civil engineer James Stiles, the March for Science perverts a noble idea that science is important and good. But the approach is like using a hammer to bash those who value economic freedom or who are environmental moderates, he said.

“A good portion of the general public do not realize how much economic hardship would have to be undertaken in order to prevent things like global warming from taking place,” said Stiles, who is 53 and unemployed in Parson, West Virginia. “If the public knew more about the cost-benefit analysis, they’d move to the moderate environmentalist position.”

The finer points in environmental debates get omitted by left-leaning environmentalists or extreme leftists, who “make all sorts of uninformed pronouncements,” Stiles said.

Stiles believes in human-made climate change, but questions whether it “poses a significant hazard to human life.” He wants to see a future that encourages zero-carbon sources of energy, like nuclear power, and argues the market — unassisted by the government — has been moving away from fossil fuels on its own. But he is skeptical of the push for using solar and wind energy as catchall solution for climate change.

He pointed to Germany, where the strong transition toward solar and wind has actually increased carbon emissions in recent years (though German and European emissions have dropped in general over the last decade).

“They don’t have the natural gas supplies that the U.S. has, so they end up burning coal as a replacement when the sun is not shining and the wind isn’t blowing,” Stiles said. “Solar and wind energy require alternative sources that can be turned on very short notice. You simply can’t do that with nuclear power. You have to go with coal or biomass, and to some extent natural gas.”

Stiles, who has worked on environmental engineering projects in the past, argues these finer points get omitted by left-leaning environmentalists or extreme leftists, who “make all sorts of uninformed pronouncements.” His remedy: education and greater exposure to scientists. He won’t be attending the march.

“If people don’t personally know personally a scientist, then they’re more likely mistrust the results of science and are more likely to trust various people on the right or the left, who claim to speak for real science but are not.”

The marine biology student who thinks the march is an opportunity to educate

In the years following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Jen Hemphill analyzed the spill’s ecological impacts on the Gulf of Mexico. Inspired by that work, she decided pursue a master’s degree in marine biology at Texas A&M in Corpus Christi, Texas.

JenHemphill

Jen Hemphill, marine biology student

“Working on projects like that has given has definitely given me a look into what impacts humans have on the environment as a whole as well as the animals living in the ocean, ranging from giant whales all the way down to single celled phytoplankton,” the 31-year-old said.

Now, Hemphill is an organizer of Saturday’s March for Science in Corpus Christi. She admits she has concerns about how Republican control of congress could the impact research funding, but said she is also focused on local issues facing her city like water quality problems and beachfront pollution. Because of that, Hemphill wants the Corpus Christi event to take on a more educational purpose.

“I don’t want it to be ‘Trump is bad. Let’s protest,’” she said. “I want to look at this march as a way to educate. We are going to have local scientists either from the university or from anywhere in the Corpus Christi area to come to the march. If they’d like to march, that’d be awesome, but mostly I would like them to be present and have a name tag.”

Rather than think of the March for Science as a one day event, Hemphill wants participants to focus on long term strategies for bolstering science-based policy.

“I want the public to come and ask questions about the water cycle or something all the way up to climate change,” Hemphill said. “This is a way of banding this city together with the scientists.”

“Once the march is over, how do we continue the discussion about bills in federal government or state government? How do we communicate with the public so when they vote or go to go to town hall, they have the information to ask and look into these things.”

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