On the March for Science

Stephen Buranyi

A small crowd gathered on Saturday outside the Ministry of Defence in Westminster, just across from Downing Street, for the second iteration of the March for Science. Last year’s event, which nucleated around the specific threat posed to American scientists by the incoming Trump administration, drew tens of thousands of people to Washington DC, and more than a million more across 200 cities worldwide. The number in London was reported to be 10,000.

This year there were fewer than a hundred. They waved homemade signs and cheered a series of speakers beneath the statue of Field Marshal Montgomery, but there was a definite sense that energy had been lost. ‘Last year we closed down the streets from the Science Museum to Parliament Square,’ a Cambridge paleoceanographer told me. ‘It was incredible.’ People recalled a sort of siege mentality. ‘Trump had just banned the EPA from tweeting and talking to the media,’ a UCL climate researcher said. ‘No one knew what was going to happen.’ Everyone was angry at Trump, and the British scientists talked about their fears around Brexit.

There is a sense among scientists that their work is being sidelined, and that their particular claim to the truth is losing influence – that there is substance to Michael Gove’s remark that people ‘have had enough of experts’. But even the original march, in the time between its conception and its execution, had somehow moved away from that locus, which centered on Trump, and became a mass international demonstration celebrating and reaffirming the general goodness of science. It is difficult to sustain a political movement with such vague demands. The people in London were hopeful on Saturday that the march in DC would attract a bigger crowd, but there, too, the numbers dropped, to a few thousand.

Scientists are right to worry. Polls suggest that public trust in science remains high, but in the past two decades democratic governments have suppressed and restricted scientists. The Bush administration did its best to silence climate researchers, and Stephen Harper’s government in Canada prevented federal scientists from talking to the media without permission. An anti-science PR strategy developed by climate change deniers has shown that exploiting false-equivalence in the media and attacking scientists’ personal credibility is remarkably effective. BBC Radio 4 was recently found to have broken accuracy rules for not challenging Nigel Lawson’s climate change denial in an interview last year.

But scientists’ default political stance is a wary one. The geologist Robert S. Young warned in the New York Times last year that a march ‘will serve only to trivialise and politicise the science we care so much about’, and turn scientists into ‘another group caught up in the culture wars’. There is a deeply held belief that even though science may be under threat from politics, political engagement by scientists would be even more damaging to their credibility. And so the response to a direct, defined political threat is an abstract call for the retrenchment of scientists’ special position as neutral but respected advisers to an imagined informed public.

The idea of a barrier between science and politics is no more than fifty years old. Scientists have always imagined themselves a world apart, but in the mid-20th century they regularly organised around political causes. In 1964, more than 50,000 people joined Scientists and Engineers for Johnson-Humphrey, and funded radio ads against the Goldwater campaign. ‘By the time we were through, any guy in Pittsburgh in a T-shirt with a can of beer in his hand knew the smartest people in this country considered Goldwater unfit,’ David Garth, a political adviser to the campaign, later said. The UK has had a long tradition of openly Marxist and socialist scientists who organised around their political leanings, including J.D. Bernal and P.M.S. Blackett.

The risks posed by Trump aren’t going away. He recently appointed Mike Pompeo, who has repeatedly denied the reality of climate change, as secretary of state. And Scott Pruitt has spent the past year gutting the Environmental Protection Agency. The model of the scientist as a neutral adviser who agitates only for funding has served researchers well, but left them with a lack of political options in a real crisis. For the moment, scientists seem content to take the long view, and to frame the dangers of ignoring them in terms of future disasters of climate or disease, rather than any immediate political consequences.


  • 17 April 2018 at 1:27pm
    XopherO says:
    'The model of the scientist as a neutral adviser who only agitates for funding' has been nicknamed 'The Storybook Image of the Scientist' since research by RK Merton and others (Cole and Cole, Mitroff, etc) in the 60s and 70s in particular, but ongoing. The following research paper from 2016 can be accessed via Google:

    Who believes in the Storybook Image of the Scientist? CLS Veldkamp et al.

    This paper references most of the well-known publications in the field.

    Scientists are always complaining about funding, and have difficulty in dealing with challenges to their expertise and research. It was estimated somewhat humorously in the 1960s that by 2050 every man woman and child in the UK would be a scientist if funding continued at the almost exponential rate at the time. When Thatcher, with some reason (I hate to say it) cut back the rate of growth (not the global figure) there were howls of protest. Indeed the Coles had already estimated (through empirical research) that scientific discovery could proceed without disruption without 50% of researchers. That is probably even more true today where competition for research money is probably at its most intense (and partisan) ever. There is a lot of money wasted on meaningless research, and though I hate to say it, the best and most influential research is done, with the odd exception, in elite institutions. There was never a shortage of scientists, simply a shortage of science graduates who wanted to continue in science, the pay was so poor and conditions far from ideal in all but a few cases in elite institutions. I know, I was one (almost, I quit before the end when I realised this).

    The controversy over global warming has certainly thrown up some of the worst behaviour by scientists we have seen - throwing insults, journals selectively choosing papers that support the belief, etc. And the idiotic Prince Charles calling those who challenged (with evidence) 'headless chickens' which actually better describes the hysteria of the global-warmists. It is not so much whether global warmimg (as opposed to obvious climate change) is real, but realistically what can be done about it as the developing world emits millions of tons of CO2. I maintain a certain scepticism which every good scientist should, but doesn't, as Popper, Merton, Mahoney etc have pointed out, repeatedly.

    A group of scientists once wrote to the THES, many years ago, to complain about funding pointing out, they thought, that Nobel prizes coincided with periods of better funding. Unfortunately, they 'forgot' that it is often many years between the successful research and the Nobel. Once taken into account there was no correlation.

    So, less special pleading, fewer deceptive arguments for funding, less storybook image, please.

  • 18 April 2018 at 11:17am
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    Even pseudo-scientists like myself are sticklers for accuracy so it is worth pointing out that Mr Gove actually said: "I think that the people of this country have had enough of experts with organisations from acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong".

    Tendentiously editing quotes is as bad as cherry-picking facts.