It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely group of protesters and activists than science nerds. I count myself in that group and, let’s face it, we’re not known for that kind of ostentatious behavior or an affinity for large social gatherings. But on April 22, 2017, thousands and thousands of members and friends of that seemingly quiet and introverted tribe took to the streets in over 600 locations on all seven continents to “March for Science.”
A lot has been written about the inception of March already, and I won’t belabor that here. In summary, the March for Science was inspired by the success of the Women’s March on Washington and was fostered by a growing feeling within the scientific community (not without merit) that the general public and our policy makers have become more and more disconnected from scientific consensus in a variety of areas. The 2016 presidential election strengthened those feelings and concern deepened when the new administration set forth a budget proposal that would drastically cut federal funding in many areas of basic and applied science research. Science needed to speak up against those perceived threats, and so the March for Science was born.
Risks and Responsibilities
This is not to say that there has been universal approval for the March for Science, even within the scientific community. Concerns were voiced by many that the March for Science could serve to further polarize an already fractured country and increase the politicization of science. That concern is not without merit. We do have too many divisions in this country already and clever signs held aloft by a group perceived to be “academic elites” certainly won’t help that. It’s also true that in spite of the efforts of the March organizers to stress that it was intended to be a nonpartisan effort to raise awareness of the importance of science in society, it was hard to miss the anti-administration messages sent by many attendees.
So, yes, there were risks associated with the March. However, to believe that science can and should somehow be above the messiness that is our political system is unrealistic. Science needs to be a part of the political process. In fact it has a critical role.
Science has a responsibility, as the phrase goes, to “speak truth to power.” Good government policy is grounded in good science. The decisions that governments need to make about the environment, health, safety, education, resource management, national security, and a myriad of other topics are extremely complex. The choices made by governments need to be informed by advice from the scientific experts who have devoted their lives to studying those issues. Ideally the role of science in politics remains non-partisan, but that can seem a treacherously thin line to walk at times.
But science has a role in society that goes beyond just speaking truth to power. Scientists have a responsibility, maybe even a more critical one, to speak truths to those not in political office. Scientists need to be able to help the general public (those that elect our public officials) to understand the positive role that science plays in their lives. We need both an informed electorate and informed civic leaders.
The March for Science was motivated by a sense that the scientific community is currently involved in what seems like a life or death struggle to win the hearts and minds of the American people and our leaders. The familiar modes of communicating scientific facts are no longer working. We find ourselves at a point where speaking scientific “truth” is not enough. If that’s so, then we need to try different modes of communication. Perhaps scientists need to learn to speak as fluently from their hearts as they do from their minds.
Tell me a Story
Scientists are well trained in how to speak mind to mind: data, facts, and logic. Most of our scientific education is devoted to speaking in that mode, whether that’s learning how to apply a theory, observe and record an experiment, or report results and conclusions to peers. We aren’t taught with the same rigor (if at all) how to communicate science to non-scientists. But even that is still speaking to the mind. Speaking heart-to-heart necessitates communicating the passion that each of us has about the importance of science to the world and our own personal lives. In short, we need to learn how to tell our stories.
Stories are powerful tools. We humans love stories, and sharing stories allows a kind of connection that invites understanding in a way that data alone can’t achieve. Not quite sure what your story looks like? Try asking yourself some questions:
What excites you most about science? What are you really passionate about? When did you first decide to go into the sciences and why? How has that calling changed your life and the lives of others? How do you want to change the world through your work (and you know you do!)?
Those answers are all parts of your story. Build it from there. And once you know your story, share it with anyone who’ll listen: your neighbor, your parents, your annoying uncle who thinks the government is hiding aliens in Roswell, your representatives, and even your president.
Now That I Have Your Attention…
When I mentioned to my mom that I was planning on participating in the March she asked me, “do you think a march is going to change anyone’s mind?” I didn’t have a good answer at first. I eventually came to the conclusion that, no, a march isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. But that’s OK.
I think this march served two purposes. First, it put tens of thousands of people in community with others who share a common passion. That was real, face-to-face community, not just an on-line, virtual community. Riding down to the march on the DC metro I saw complete strangers connect because of their shared cause. That likely wouldn’t have occurred on any other trip on the Metro. Finding those connections and realizing you’re not alone in your passion is both inspiring and energizing.
Second, the March made people pay attention, even if only briefly, to the concerns of the scientific community. It would be hard to ignore something like The March for Science, even if you wanted to. So even if this march, by itself, doesn’t have the power to change someone’s mind about the importance of scientific inquiry to this country, it grabbed the headlines and attention of people across the globe. It’s given us a window of opportunity to put science in the spotlight and have it viewed in new ways. That’s an opportunity we can’t afford to let slip by.
The Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with One…March?
What now? The signs are put away. The crowds have all gone home. The March for Science is in the history books. But, for the moment, people are paying attention. Now is the time to take the next steps. Get out there. Tell the important stories of science. Tell your story. Advocate. Educate. Win hearts and minds.
Change the world.