Last week’s March for Science brought together scientists and their supporters in more than 600 world cities. In 2017, a year of political upheaval, this is reassuring. Scientists are starting to raise their voice as a community, protesting against government cuts and challenging alternative facts and the ever-increasing pressure on academia to prove its impact.
However, that researchers now feel they need to remind politicians and society of their value is frightening. It is a sign of dark times when academic scientists, usually detached observers, feel compelled to speak out and carry placards.
It could even be argued that the scientific community is still not protesting loudly enough. The marches, for all the cleverness of their signage, were polite affairs. About 10,000 people turned up in London. They marched quietly and sedately to Westminster, where they dispersed by 3pm.
Talking to marchers, it was clear there was no consensus on the message. In London alone, people protested against Trump, Brexit, climate change, stem cell research and sexism. Most are valid causes for concern, but protesters could neither say how any of these concerns could be addressed, nor make a case for the crucial role scientists could play in solving these problems, and why they currently feel they can’t.
Some protesters were more to the point. Individual posters called for more evidence in policymaking. Others voiced concerns about scientific independence and the continued assaults on research budgets.
And some were in it for the fun. Dressing like the mad scientist of cliché, with lab coats and out-of-control hair, they took a stab at public preconceptions about what science is. But in this mish-mash of causes and costumes, a clear message was lacking. The organisers stressed repeatedly that they wanted “those in power” to listen. But to what? Apart from a few chants about peer review, the London march was largely silent.
Any effort to highlight the growing pressures faced by the scientific community and show the public that scientists play a crucial part in democracy is to be welcomed. The marchers brought together communities of researchers scattered all over Europe and the world, and flagged up their concerns. But the next step up must be more concrete: we need proposals for governments to become more open to, supportive of—and reliant on—scientific expertise.
The risk, if this is not done, is that scientists will appear self-serving. Compared with health centres, primary schools and elderly care, universities seem well funded. If they cannot make their case, the public might condemn scientists as ivory-towered whiners.
The march organisers said they wanted to show the world that “lots of people care”. But to truly make things better for the scientific community, this care must be turned into proposals for action. Otherwise last week’s marches, and any subsequent protests, will remain little more than a photo opportunity.
Anger and discontent do not always have to express themselves through burning cars and flying rocks. But in attempting to bring everyone inside its tent, the March for Science risks not being heard at all.