April 20, 2017


Are science and activism compatible?

This Saturday, on Earth Day, scientists will “walk out of their labs and into the streets” in a massive grassroots demonstration in Washington, DC. Sister marches are taking place in over 500 cities, and many are voicing their concern for the future of science under US President Donald Trump. Organisers of the rally are calling for evidence-based policies to be implemented by politicians, but while they insist the march “isn’t about any one politician -- this is about science and policy, scientists and science supporters,” the genesis of the campaign is rooted in the US administration’s stance toward science.

President Trump’s proposed budget cuts across government agencies left the scientific community reeling. It includes massive cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Institute of Health (NIH), Health and Human Services, and many others. An executive order signed in March rolls back at least six of former President Obama’s executive orders that aimed to curb climate change. The president has appointed a climate change denier to head the EPA, he has called climate change a Chinese hoax, and has yet to appoint a top science adviser in his administration. It is unlikely that the proposed budget cuts will make it through Congress, but the administration’s stance toward the scientific community has led to unprecedented organising and online conversation.

The march has raised questions about the role of scientists in politics: when, if at all, should scientists become politically active and how can they maintain objectivity and credibility while doing so?  

Many scientists say when the ability to carry out their work is threatened, the time to stand on the sidelines is over. Politics and science have long intersected. “In the face of an alarming trend toward discrediting scientific consensus and restricting scientific discovery, we might ask instead: can we afford not to speak out in its defense? An ideology is considered to be just as valid as verified scientific evidence," Rush Holt, head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told The Stream.

Critics say the march is anti-Trump and anti-Republican. They worry that organisers will not be able to control the message. Partisan issues aside, some scientists say there is a risk of being seen as an interest group, which could threaten objectivity and undermine the credibility of their work. Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist with the University of Chicago told The Stream, "at best the march is effective, at worst it harms the reputation of scientists and we are seen as a bunch of idealogues".

On this episode of The Stream, we speak with:

Lydia Villa-Komaroff @LydiaVK
Honorary co-chair, March for Science

Rae Wynn-Grant @RaeWynnGrant 
Conservation scientist, American Museum of Natural History

Alex Berezow @AlexBerezow
Senior Fellow, American Council on Science and Health 

Richard Alley

Should scientists be activists? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.