Scientists have been speaking up more and more to support scientific research and data-driven decision making. Here, a crowd demonstrates at the Rally to Stand Up for Science in Boston's Copley Square in February. Photo by Sarah McQuate
On Earth Day, April 22, 2017, thousands of scientists and supporters in Washington, D.C., and more than 600 other cities around the world joined the March for Science, a demonstration to support evidence-based decision making and the scientific method.
“It feels like we’re in a moment when science funding is going to change dramatically,” says Tim McKay, an LSA professor of physics, astronomy, and education who marched in Washington. “If it does, that’s going to have huge implications for the world of science.”
Recent changes proposed to the federal budget include extreme funding cuts to national science programs. Federal cash flow to the Environmental Protection Agency could shrink by more than 30 percent, and the National Institutes of Health could lose 19 percent of their budget. Other programs could disappear entirely.
But funding cuts would hurt more than just financially. Declining investment in research might reflect waning popular support for science as a way to understand and impact the world.
Scientists working in federal posts have even bumped up against new regulations that restrict researchers from communicating their findings in journals, to the press, and on social media. In response, an employee with the U.S. National Park Service began tweeting about climate change from a rogue twitter account earlier this year, gaining hundreds of thousands of followers overnight. This type of advocacy is unique among scientists, historically. But LSA researchers on campus and beyond marched for science in Washington.
“I think a very important piece of a lot of people's motivation behind wanting to march is much more about being pro-science, showing support, and expressing solidarity,” says Elyse Aurbach (M.S.’13, Ph.D.’16), a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience and co-director of a communication and public engagement program for researchers begun at U-M called RELATE (Researchers Expanding Lay-Audience Teaching and Engagement), who also marched. “Honestly, that’s probably what made me buy my plane ticket more than concern.”
“It’s a big moment for people to emerge from the laboratory and engage in ways they haven’t before,” says McKay.
Michigan scientists and science supporters met on the steps of Washington's National Museum of Natural History at the March for Science on Saturday. Professor Meg Duffy, who spoke at the march, stands front and center with her arm around neuroscience researcher and science communicator Elyse Aurbach. Tim McKay holds the banner at the top left. Photo courtesy of Elyse Aurbach
“Scientists, by their nature, are not the kind of people who tend to participate in demonstrations,” admitted Doug Boucher (Ph.D. ’79), who studied zoology and ecology in LSA and recently retired from the Union of Concerned Scientists as scientific advisor for the Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative. “Scientists often interpret objectivity as meaning you shouldn’t take a position one way or the other on something—that others decide what it means in terms of policy.
“I joined the Union of Concerned Scientists partly attracted by the way it defines itself as a science-based advocacy organization, which means that science is the underlying basis for the work we do,” Boucher says. “But we are advocates. We have positions.”
“We are the institution of science,” says McKay. “Scientists create their own world, and we may decide that an important part of a scientist’s role is to be a person, in public, sharing knowledge, putting that knowledge to work in support of a free and open democratic society.”
And so they joined the march in Washington.
Working the Crowd
The rainy day in D.C. soaked the crowd of science supporters standing near the Washington Monument. But they cheered and some even shouted “Go Blue!” when Meghan Duffy approached the microphone on the rally stage.
Event organizers had invited Duffy, an associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and a public engagement fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to speak at the national march. Onstage, Duffy praised federal programs that help fund a diverse pool of talented scientists and attract students from underrepresented communities, some of whom make surprising discoveries. “Working on a topic that seemingly has no direct relevance to humans,” she said, “can sometimes lead to breakthroughs that have enormous, unanticipated impacts.”
LSA alumna Mona Hanna-Attisha (B.S. ’98, M.P.H. ’08) served as an honorary co-chair of the march in D.C. and also spoke onstage. As the pediatrician whistleblower in Flint who found elevated levels of lead in her patients, Hanna-Attisha said, “I was loud, and I was stubborn, and science spoke truth to power.” She prodded the scientists on the wet grass, “It is time for all of us to step out of our clinics, our classrooms, and labs … We need to hear all of your voices.”
Duffy took some quick photos with Bill Nye the Science Guy and Questlove behind the stage, tightened the straps on her sandals, and joined the march.
The Next Day
“There’s a broad misconception that a march will change policy immediately,” says Christina May, a neuroscience graduate student working in LSA’s Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, who joined the event in Washington. “But that’s just not what they’re for. I think the real value will be meeting other marchers and feeling like you’re not alone.”
“It’s about building community,” McKay agrees, “and building commitment.”
“It’s not simply add water, dump in a little science, and everything’s better,” says Arthur Lupia, an LSA professor of political science who works with major national scientific organizations to improve their interface with the public. “I think the question you want to ask with the March for Science is: What happens the next day?”
At the March for Science in Washington, D.C., a sign in the crowd says, "There Is No Planet B." Photo by Elizabeth Wason
One idea floating around is the science march could grow into a lobby group that helps pass legislation supporting science. “If your real objective is to make sure the federal government funds science in the long term, and there’s broad support for it, you’ve got to be able to speak for both sides,” says Lupia. “If people walk away from you saying, ‘Science is really important to our quality of life,’ then you’ve got the basis of a coalition.”
For scientists to persuade people holding the purse strings, they’ll need persistence and clear communication. Likewise for scientists who want to demonstrate to their community that their work matters, their research results deserve consideration, evidence means more than opinion, and science is a public good worth protecting.
But these communication skills haven’t always come easily to scientists—to the point where the general public stereotypes scientists as a white-coated elite, holed up in their labs. “If I could change one thing about science training, I’d incorporate communication skills as fundamental,” says Aurbach, citing a major reason she helped launch U-M’s RELATE program in the first place.
“We’re interested in harnessing the energy associated with the March for Science,” she says. “So what if, as a follow-up to the march, we hosted a teach-out specifically about public engagement with science?”
“The idea of the teach-outs is to replicate the idea of the teach-in, which was created here at U-M,” says McKay. The very first teach-in happened on the U-M campus in 1965, in response to the expansion of the Vietnam War. Instead of striking from work, U-M faculty members shared their knowledge about critical events happening right then with the local community.
U-M now has a global reach, aided by current technology and a renewed urgency among faculty to connect with their community. The U-M Office of Academic Innovation is hosting a series of free teach-outs held online, one of which deals directly with making science communication more effective. The #scicomm teach-out will happen just two weeks after the science march, beginning May 5.
Effective communication, says Lupia, “is kind of like a Drake song: You hear it a couple times, and the next day, you can recreate the tune on your own. So what we’re really trying to do is create a memory, a situation where something lingers.
“Best-case scenario,” he says: “People will leave the March for Science humming a tune that is of consequence later on.”