Policy

On the March

By Misha Angrist

I suspect most Genome readers probably already know about The March for Science, which will take place in Washington D.C. (among other places) on Earth Day — April 22, 2017.

That so many do know about it is fairly remarkable. On Inauguration Day, in response to growing signs of the incoming administration’s hostility toward science, someone named beaverteeth92 posted an idle comment on Reddit: “There needs to be a Scientists’ March on Washington.”

From this single beat of beaverteeth92’s butterfly wings has sprung a massive movement.

As of February 1, more than 1.3 million people had lent their support to the March on Facebook and Twitter.

Of course, with the viral tidal wave have come some shade-throwers. “I think the average American will scratch their head and say: ‘What are they marching for? What is the threat?’” physicist William Happer told The New York Times. Whether this response is born of ignorance or disingenuousness I can’t say (remember: we can’t judge people’s intent!). But come on. Since the transition Trump and his surrogates have:

When you’re engaged in the business of understanding how the natural world works and suddenly, abetted by a Congress fraught with reality-deniers of various stripes, a guy takes over whose pants seem to be in a state of constant conflagration, it might be time to march.

But won’t a march “serve only to trivialize and politicize the science we care so much about [and] turn scientists into another group caught up in the culture wars…?”

Um, you mean like Galileo? I’m afraid that that Boaty McBoatface sailed long ago:

To be clear, I have no expectations that a gathering of hundreds of thousands of scientists will lead to systemic change. It is unlikely to enlighten a cohort of likeminded people determined to live in the Middle Ages. It will not lead to an increase in funding. And it will do nothing to liberate reams of empirical data or the dedicated civil servants who generate it.

So, why not listen to the naysayers, put our heads down, go back to our labs and classrooms, write our grants, teach our courses, do our experiments, administrate our administrations? Why not, in the interests of science, stay in our lanes?

Many of us will. A recent episode of the public media podcast The Pub presented an apt parallel to the march-vs-don’t-march question. It raised the issue of whether it was appropriate for journalists to wear T-shirts that say, “We’re not shutting up.” The choice was phrased as: “Do you want to be right or do you want to stay married?” In other words, to broadcast one’s defiance might make one feel righteous, but it will alienate those with different views.

That’s probably a safe bet. And I certainly hope the “reality-based community” will respect the decision of any scientist or science ally who chooses not to march for fear of biting any particular hand or for any other reason. But many of us see ourselves in an unfamiliar, frightening place already. Galileo is on the witness stand and he needs to know that we have his back. Sometimes it is better to be right.

And frankly, sometimes we just want to feel better. A march is an act of resistance, to be sure, but it is also an act of fellowship. It is a reminder that we are not alone and that the prospect of a new, petulant, autocratic sheriff in town need not cow us or deter us from our passions and our callings. Yes, we can take solace in science and all of the good it is capable of, but we can also take solace in each other.

So where will you be on April 22? As it happens, I will be at a conference in Seattle. But there’s a Science March there, too. I will be sure to wear comfortable shoes.


While you’re here, please check out the Winter issue of Genome. Among other things, you will find stories about whether genetic testing might tell us something about recovery from concussions; the power and limits of genetic testing for thrombophilia; how pharmacogenetics is saving lives in Thailand; the potential for tumor sequencing to reduce cancer misdiagnoses; and cutting-edge approaches to multiple myeloma.