Letter to the Editor

Lessons from the March for Science

I am a progressive Democrat. In college, my physics classes only occasionally took priority over my student organizing around marriage equality, and I have the grades to prove it. During the 2006 midterms, I made calls on behalf of Democratic Congressional candidates from my little apartment in the countryside of eastern France,in between assembling the parts of the ATLAS alignment system. When I finished my graduate classes and qualifying exams at the end of 2007, I took a leave of absence from school to direct campaign offices for progressive organizations including the Democratic National Committee. After I finally finished my Ph.D., I received a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship where I worked as a nuclear policy advisor in the office of Senator Markey (D-MA). With that background, it should be no surprise that I believe scientists need to have an active voice in politics.

However, I am probably the last person you would expect to be encouraging my colleagues to make a conservative case for science. Yet two months ago I found myself organizing 13 scientists and engineers, along with a team of editors, to draft, edit, and place op-eds discussing why we would be joining the March for Science using conservative themes, such as the feelings of patriotism produced by American leadership in science, and avoiding the topics like climate change.

The idea struck me while I was sitting in an extremely packed panel discussion at the recent AAAS annual meeting in Boston. The topic was defending science in a post-Trump world and the question of the political polarization of science was hot on people’s minds. Jane Lubchenco, former Administrator of NOAA and a marine ecologist, encouraged the audience not to make science partisan. Some expressed concerns that the March for Science would be interpreted by the media as a partisan event, with liberal elites protesting the Trump administration, and therefore should not be happening.

This was an argument I had been hearing from many in the science community since the day the march was announced. While it was fascinating to see everyone develop a sudden interest in political science and hypothesize about the political impact of the march, the reality was the experiment would be conducted either way.

Instead of joining the debate, I decided to work within the confines of the data. If the concern was that the March for Science would paint science as a liberal issue, then we should make sure the conservative case for the march was made. With that I set aside my weekends leading up to the march and developed a project to place op-eds written by scientists in local papers of the more conservative parts of the country.

Along with a few friends, we quickly put together talking points and a short guide to writing op-eds. We recruited our colleagues, their friends, and some students into the project. We offered to provide assistance with editing and placement; in exchange, they had to stick to an ambitious timeline and to the talking points.

When I started this project I thought, at most, we would get half of the pieces published. The week before the March we began submitting them to our hometown newspapers all over the country. Within a day, we had our first acceptance, from the Shreveport Times in Louisiana. Almost every day thereafter we had one or two more accepted for publication until, the day before the March, we reached 100% published.

The day of the March, I found myself on the rain soaked National Mall with thousands of people carrying all kinds of creative pro-science signs. To see so many science supporters all in one place was inspiring to say the least. Yet part of me was stuck wondering how the media was covering the event.

The crowd was so large that checking the news on my cell phone wasn’t an option. Instead, I found my way over to a CNN reporter who was occasionally taking live shots in front of the main stage. To my pleasant surprise he never described the event as a protest against the Trump administration, but focused on the crowd’s support for scientific research. And, from what I can tell, this was largely the story that came out of the day.

I’m sure our 13 op-eds were just a small drop in the bucket when it came to framing the media narrative about the March, but I think there are still some important lessons here. First, the media is clearly hungry to hear the voice of scientists and we should be taking advantage of that to tell our stories. Second, because science is not a partisan issue, we can make a case for it from any political perspective. Most importantly, the March for Science showed us we can even put some passion behind our political arguments without making science a polarized issue.

Dan Pomeroy
Staff, MIT International Policy Lab

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.