We need a march for science, but this is not the one

Marching for science or scientists marching?

March for science
Protesters make their way through Seattle Centre during the March For Science in Seattle on April 22 [Reuters/David Ryder]

Today, scientists nationwide and across the globe are taking to the streets in defence of science. In the weeks leading up to the march, social media and the news have been abuzz with questions about scientists marching en masse: What finally spurred researchers to leave their labs to march in defence of their work? Is this march political? (The organisers confirm that, yes, this is political but also insist that they are non-partisan.)

Is the march becoming too political in talking about diversity and “injecting identity politics” into a field that ostensibly does not need to address those issues right now? Or is it not political enough in failing to grapple with larger societal problems that affect marginalised scientists and their communities?

While questions of how, when, and why scientists should engage in politics continue to linger in our minds, the March for Science has unequivocally shown that scientists can no longer afford to be “apolitical”. Or perhaps more accurately, a specific segment of the scientific community has now discovered that they, too, must be invested in politics.

With the Trump administration defunding the National Institute of Health, issuing gag orders to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, US Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency, and demanding the removal of data from federal websites, many scientists have realised that their years of education and research is being threatened.

Loss of funding, an inability to communicate their findings to the public, devaluing science education and research, and ignoring scientific evidence impinge on scientists’ ability to ask questions about the workings of the universe and expand human knowledge.

In short, scientists are increasingly unable to do science. And as such, the March is less of a march for science but a march for the freedom to do and value science.

Differentiating “marching for science” from “scientists marching” is perhaps the crux of why the March for Science organisers have been criticised by marginalised scientists for failing to be inclusive. While many scientists have not felt their work threatened or undermined before 2017, many others have – and have for decades – because they are from historically marginalised backgrounds.

In the #marginsci hashtag on Twitter – started by Dr Stephani Page -scientists of colour, LGBTQ scientists, disabled scientists, and scientists who live at the intersections of these various identities have shared their personal experiences of being a marginalised person in a field where so scientists who share similar experiences of discrimination are few and far in between.

There is no shortage of stories about feeling unwelcome within their professions, struggling to secure funding, be published, and pursue and achieve tenure. Outside of the lab or fieldwork, marginalised scientists must also grapple with societal-level issues that directly affect their lives, health, and safety in ways that many of their colleagues never have to worry about.

It is in this environment that marginalised scientists have long raised concerns about diversity and inclusion within the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) field. And unfortunately, the voices of marginalised people within STEM were dismissed in organising the March for Science as they are within academia and within society at large, emphasising yet again that marginalised scientists’ concerns are not viewed as “real issues” under attack.

To be clear, science itself is not under threat. Science is merely a tool for understanding the universe, and the scientific method allows us to do that in observable and reproducible ways. No one is prohibiting us from asking questions, forming hypotheses, testing those hypotheses, collecting and analysing data, and ultimately interpreting data to confirm or reject hypotheses.

Science – the process, the tool – has existed since time immemorial and will continue to exist as long as humans do. We are a naturally curious species, and no amount of legislation, lack of funding, or science denial will prevent us from continuing to seek knowledge.

But science can only exist as long as there are people to do it. And the best science comes from an inclusive scientific community – one in which marginalised scientists are valued as being more than a “diversity hire”, one in which we have the freedom to ask new and different questions informed by our perspectives on the world. It is a scientific community that sees their role in society as responsible to people and communities, especially to marginalised ones. Such a scientific community can only exist if we not only march for science but also march for larger issues of justice – things that most scientists would consider “out of their interest” but directly impact our marginalised colleagues.

What would it mean for scientists to march for Black lives? What does it mean to insist that the technologies we develop should not be used to further police Black communities and contribute to the prison industrial complex?

What would it mean for scientists to affirm that “mni wiconi” – water is life? How can we stand with Standing Rock to defend sacred lands and protect the environment from oil spills and continued reliance on fossil fuels?

What would it look like if scientists marched not only to defend researchers’ right to whistle blow when our water is poisoned, as Dr Mona Hanna-Attisha, but also to defend clean water as a human right and to demand immediate action in response?

The March for Science is a microcosm of the scientific community, which is a microcosm of society at large. If, instead of marching for the freedom to do science, scientists marched for freedom itself – freedom from racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and ableism in society, what can only result but freedom to do science? Imagine then what new knowledge will be discovered and new technologies made!

There is no freedom without justice. So if we are to march, let us march for science justice. And perhaps ironically, the March organisers got it right when they posted in January this now-deleted tweet: “colonization, racism, immigration, native rights, sexism, ableism, queer-, trans-, intersex-phobia & econ justice are scientific issues”.

Dorothy Charles is a medical student at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and an organiser with White Coats for Black Lives. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.