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Why I Will Not Be Marching for Science

By April 4, 2017No Comments

Virginia Schutte says the March for Science won’t meet her goals or those set out by the organizers. Here, she shares some alternatives.

When I was in graduate school, I learned to create classes using backward design. Backward design encourages setting goals and then planning a course of action to meet those goals. This strategy can be applied to almost anything in life. “What do I want for dinner?,” for example, can transform into “I need dinner to be quick” or “let’s get rid of what’s about to go bad in the fridge.”

Let’s apply backward design to the March for Science, which recently added their principles and goals to their website. Is marching the best way to achieve their objectives?

It’s worth noting that the details of these goals seem to be frequently updated – even March organizers disagree on what March priorities should be.

Goal 1: Humanize science

Scientists have a branding problem: they are seen as “cold” and untrustworthy. But a march is not the best way to humanize science. In this case, scientists (especially in the realm of alternative facts, when any public appearance is vulnerable to spin) could be seen as partisan and angry at the very least. This is not likely to improve the image of scientists for anyone who currently thinks of them in a less-than-positive light.

Goal 2: Support scientists

Marchers want to “speak up for,” “protect,” and “support” scientists who are “silenced,” “threatened,” and “can no longer serve their institutions.” I can’t see a way to meet this goal without supporting individual scientists on a case-by-case basis, but the March is designed to channel thousands of voices into a single event. The March can only amplify generic messages about and to scientists in distress.

Goal 3: Advocate for open, inclusive, and accessible science

This is a tough sell. Science has its own troubled past of exclusion (and the March does as well). White men hold the largest number of jobs in the sciences by far. This is by all means something that we need to address. But taking a stand against exclusion in the sciences seems like a message best sent to fellow, future, and potential scientists rather than lawmakers. I don’t want the government to have any more power over science hiring decisions than it already does.

Goal 4: Partner with the public

A great goal, and one partially achieved by including the public in the event. But to truly engage communities and look to the public for inspiration, scientists have to listen, not just talk. A march is not an event that says “I’m listening.”

Goal 5: Affirm science as a democratic value

For backward design to work, goals have to be specific and measurable. This goal is neither. It says that march participants will be “more active in… democratic life” and are sending a message that “the scientific community is making our democracy stronger.” Stronger in what way? What is a ‘democratic life’? It’s hard for me to see how marching furthers these vague messages.

For context, the Women’s March on Washington aimed to send a message through numbers and to connect people with each other to establish a like-minded community (according to their website). Both are goals that a march can directly address.

The March for Science is based on laudable principles, but I don’t think that marching is the best way to accomplish their stated objectives. Here are a few alternative ideas for how people can work to achieve these aims.

Humanize science

Science supporters should engage people on a personal level rather than only ‘as a scientist.’ Marchers would leave a very different impression on non-scientists if the event were a giant meet-and-greet, for example. Online, they could follow the example of many scientists in my social media feed who don’t restrict themselves to posting about only the professional parts of their lives. Instead, they talk smack over basketball games and were very excited to contribute to the #doesitfart database. And scientists are already humanized in #ActualLivingScientist, More Than Scientists, Biotweeps, and @realscientists.

Support scientists

Rather than marching against government-issued gag orders (which, to be clear, definitely don’t have a place in science), participants could instead join a community that provides resources to scientists in need. Pre-existing scientific communities are generally run by specific societies (such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science) or perhaps such a community could be a product of the enthusiasm behind the March. Such a community could, for example, anonymously speak on behalf of scientists whose work is being suppressed or take in scientists negatively affected by legislation.

Make science inclusive

Encouraging more and diverse people to be involved in science sounds easy but is really hard to do effectively on a broad scale. Suggestions for how to broaden participation range from confronting our implicit biases to changing society’s perceptions of scientists to advocating for a more welcoming working environment. This can seem overwhelming, but learning about what works and collaborating with other people can help.

Partner with the public

This is another thing that many people are already doing. Many scientists write about their work for the public, regularly engage people online, and even partner with non-scientists to conduct research. Listeningmust be part of the equation to succeed in creating long-lasting partnerships.

Affirm science as a democratic value

I’d change this to ‘make science a part of democracy.’ Emily Ellsworth, a former congressional staffer, has sound advice on how to best make sure your representatives hear you, including visiting them in person to talk about science (or see this analysis of what gets legislators’ attention). There are also many scientists who have recently decided to run for office. 314 Action can help with that.

If the community being forged by the March is something you want to participate in, then sign up but don’t march. Or if marching for science helps you fulfill your objectives, then please don’t let me stop you.

But if you haven’t yet, apply backward design to your goals. How can you best reach people and influence their relationship with science? If the answer isn’t marching, then do something else. I know I will be.