Scientists making and testing the mother of all balloons.
Scientists making and testing the mother of all balloons. Charles Mudede

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Scientists are not natural activists. Political advocacy requires clear messages; scientific education is, if anything, a years-long process of operant conditioning against making definitive statements. More data could reveal new patterns. Another search of the literature could turn up a previously unknown precedent. An attempt at independent replication could invalidate everything.

Then, too, scientists are deeply embedded in the Establishment—universities, government labs, and regulatory agencies. We may tend to vote liberal, but this is more because we have interests in evidence-based regulation and government funding for research and education than because scientific training makes you particularly woke. Indeed, fields with especially close ties to industry and the military can be downright conservative.

So, the very existence of a nationwide protest movement in support of science is an indication of exactly how freaked out scientists are about the presidency of Donald Trump.

The Monday after the inauguration, the new administration froze external grants at the Environmental Protection Agency and clamped down on public communication by government scientists; it later installed a climate-change denier at the top of the Environmental Protection Agency and proposed a budget that would more than decimate funding for environmental cleanup and monitoring, medical research, and basic science. The March for Science was born in the flurry of panic and outrage over the EPA funding freeze, and its evolution has been exactly what you might expect from a political movement assembled in a hurry by people who have long assumed that they had no need for a political movement.

There is persistent confusion over whether or not the March is "political" or "partisan," even though science has always been embedded in (and complicit with) politics, and the March is a response to specific policies advanced by a single political party. There is a running, acrimonious fight over whether and how the March should address and accommodate the diversity of people working in science—or lack thereof—even though that diversity shapes the movement's public image and the breadth of its support. Statements of values and goals on the main March for Science website have gone through multiple, sometimes contradictory, revisions, and the March's social media presence is even less constant. As just one example, last week the March's Twitter account posted a thread of statements describing the U.S. military's "Mother of All Bombs" as a misuse of scientific knowledge and pointing to its cost as a redirection of resources from "vulnerable and marginalized communities in the US" —a sentiment famously expressed by that radical partisan Dwight D. Eisenhower—only to disown it all the next day.

This blundering is particularly maddening because so much rides on the success of the March. Cuts to federal funding could hobble basic research and science education, and the window of opportunity to avoid the worst-case climate change scenario is closing quickly. Still, though the Trump administration is a potential disaster for science and the environment, it didn't happen overnight. The Science Committee of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has been harassing federally funded scientists for years. The budgets of the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health have been stagnant—barring a one-time bump from President Obama's 2009 economic stimulus—since before I started graduate school over a decade ago. And it's been 20 years since a Republican-majority Senate refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol to combat climate change. Maybe scientists' refusal to acknowledge and engage with politics is part of the reason things have gotten so dire.

So I've booked cross-continental airfare from Vancouver to DC. Maybe somewhere among the marchers will be the beginnings of a scientific community that is more fully connected to the society it serves. I'll find out tomorrow, on the National Mall.