From the Washington Monument to Germany’s Brandenburg Gate and even to Greenland, scientists, students and research advocates took to the streets for the March for Science.
WASHINGTON — The world saw brain power take a different form Saturday.
From the Washington Monument to Germany’s Brandenburg Gate and even to Greenland, scientists, students and research advocates took to the streets for the March for Science, conveying a global message about scientific freedom without political interference, the need for adequate spending for future breakthroughs and the general value of scientific pursuits.
They came out on an often soggy Earth Day in numbers that were mammoth if not quite astronomical.
“We didn’t choose to be in this battle, but it has come to the point where we have to fight because the stakes are too great,” said Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann, who regularly clashes with politicians.
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President Donald Trump, in an Earth Day statement hours after the marches kicked off, said, “Rigorous science depends not on ideology, but on a spirit of honest inquiry and robust debate.”
Denis Hayes, who co-organized the first Earth Day 47 years ago, said the crowd he saw from the speaker’s platform down the street from the White House was energized and “magical” in a rare way, similar to what he saw on the first Earth Day.
“For this kind of weather, this is an amazing crowd. You’re not out there today unless you really care. This is not a walk-in-the-park event,” Hayes said.
Mann said that like other scientists, he would rather be in his lab, the field or teaching students. But driving his advocacy are officials who deny his research that shows rising global temperatures. When he went on stage, he got the biggest applause for his simple opening: “I am a climate scientist.”
Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician who helped expose lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan, and who addressed the D.C. rally before the march, called the protest the beginning of a movement to ensure that governments do not dismiss or deny science.
“If we want to prevent future Flints, we need to embrace what we’ve learned and how far we’ve come in terms of science and technology,” Hanna-Attisha said in an interview.
In Los Angeles, Danny Leserman, 26, the director of digital media for the county’s Democratic Party, said, “We used to look up to intelligence and aspire to learn more and do more with that intellectual curiosity. And we’ve gone from there to a society where … our officials and representatives belittle science and they belittle intelligence. And we really need a culture change.”
The rallies in more than 600 cities put scientists, who generally shy away from advocacy and whose work depends on objective experimentation, into a more public position.
Scientists said they were anxious about political and public rejection of established science such as climate change and the safety of vaccine immunizations.
“Scientists find it appalling that evidence has been crowded out by ideological assertions,” said Rush Holt, a former physicist and Democratic congressman who runs the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “It is not just about Donald Trump, but there is also no question that marchers are saying ‘when the shoe fits.’ ”
The March for Science evolved from a social-media campaign into an effort to get people onto the streets for the cause of science.
Its organizers were motivated by Trump, who as a presidential candidate disparaged climate change as a hoax and cast suspicions on the safety of vaccines.
Their resolve deepened, they said, when the president appointed Cabinet members who seemed hostile to the sciences.
Trump also proposed a budget with severe cuts for agencies like the National Institutes of Health — which would lose 18 percent of its funding in his blueprint — and the Environmental Protection Agency, which faces a 31 percent budget cut and the elimination of a quarter of the agency’s 15,000 employees.
The rallies were also about what science does for the world.
“Most people don’t know how much funding for the sciences supports them in their lives every day. Every medical breakthrough, their food, clothing, our cellphones, our computers, all that is science-based,” said Pati Vitt, a plant scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden. “So if we stop funding scientific discoveries now, in 10 years, whatever we might have had won’t be; we just won’t have it.”
In D.C., the sign that 9-year-old Sam Klimas of Parkersburg, West Virginia, held was red, handmade and personal: “Science saved my life.” He had a form of brain cancer and has been healthy for eight years now.
Luis Fabish, 11, who traveled from Chicago with his father for the march in D.C., wore a white lab coat, a green bow tie and a hat with a pink, hand-knit brain. “I want to keep people interested in science,” he said.
Signs around the globe ranged from political ones — “Make America think again,” — to the somewhat nerdy “What Do Want? Evidence. When do want it? After peer review” to the downright obscure Star Trek and Star Wars references.
In D.C. there was also a science-fair feel, where lectures were given in tents and hands-on science tables for kids. University of Minnesota physicist James Kakalios explained the science behind Superman, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and other superheroes.
In London, physicists, astronomers, biologists and celebrities gathered for a march past the city’s most celebrated research institutions. In Spain, hundreds assembled in Madrid, Barcelona and Seville.
In Santa Fe, New Mexico, Kathryn Oakes Hall pinned a sign to the back of her T-shirt as she made her way to the march in Santa Fe: “Nine months’ pregnant, so mad I’m here.”
But she marched anyway because she worried about her baby’s future in a world that seems to consider science disposable. Her husband is an engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory, she studied anthropology, and she has a dog named Rocket.
Organizers portrayed the march as political but not partisan, promoting the understanding of science as well as defending it from various attacks, including the proposed U.S. government budget cuts under Trump.
“It’s not about the current administration. The truth is we should have been marching for science 30 years ago, 20 years, 10 years ago,” said co-organizer and public-health researcher Caroline Weinberg. “The current (political) situation took us from kind of ignoring science to blatantly attacking it. And that seems to be galvanizing people in a way it never has before. … It’s just sort of relentless attacks on science.”
In New York, demonstrators stretched for 10 blocks along Central Park West, wedged between the park and a line of buildings on a gray and dreary day.
Many messages at the New York rally took on a political hue. One demonstrator carried a sign with a diagram. “Before you dismiss science, Mr. President,” it said, “here is the molecular formula for hair spray.”