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View from Washington: March For Science - don't stop now

The March for Science movement brought out hundreds of thousands worldwide this weekend, but it was only a start.

Even Magnus Pyke got a word in. As 600 Marches for Science stretched across Earth Day time zones – sadly Nasa couldn’t track them like Santa – the late Dr Pyke was heard in Washington DC, digitally backing a live Thomas Dolby and his 1980s hit, ‘She Blinded Me With Science’. You hope it would have raised a smile, maybe even a trademark windmilling guffaw from that great British technology populariser of my youth.

But that was a rare goosebumps moment on a day where, rightly, the various events struck a jaunty but serious tone.

Some banners were more partisan than the organisers might have wanted (though that didn’t stop my favourite being, “What do atoms and Trump have in common? They both make up everything!”). So was the occasional speaker.

But mostly the podiums focused on evidence-based, peer-reviewed benefits and warnings that science has delivered, as well as its broad importance to mankind and the young in particular. The overarching message was of frustration not outright confrontation.

It was an important distinction. One day of marches won’t change anything. President Donald Trump pointedly ignored the protest on his doorstep in an official Earth Day message. The real challenge facing the March for Science and its supporting organisations lies ahead. Much more coat-tugging is required.

Those organisations must keep engaging with as many as possible of this weekend’s hundreds of thousands of protesters. It is going to be a lengthy fight. A more difficult task, though, will be turning engagement into grass-roots activism.

Some of that was happening at science fairs coinciding with the marches and attended by pressure groups such as Tech Stands Up. The main US March for Science has set up a dedicated text number – send ‘SCIENCE’ to 94253 for North American readers – through which all those interested will be kept up to date, and its sister global branches should follow suit. Facebook, Twitter and other online outlets will hopefully persist.

All this matters because there is recent evidence that disciplined, well coordinated lobbying by individuals can work.

Thousands of Americans turned out at politicians’ Town Hall meetings earlier this year. They did so to express opposition to the Republican’s initial ill-conceived attempt at healthcare reform and ultimately helped defeat it. They were informed, articulate and energised.

There is a rich vein of potential long-term support for science to tap. Early estimates are that 40,000 people attended each of the marches in Washington DC and Chicago. Another 10,000 in London. Further impressive numbers are coming in as I type. The aggregate may pass Trump’s inauguration tally (unless obviously you’re Sean Spicer).

Maintaining momentum is also an especially pressing need. Though many science issues have long been subject to political debate, a looming and much broader issue today is public funding.

In the US, the Trump administration has proposed massive reductions to the science budget. Billions of dollars could vanish from various agencies in what the independent Information Technology and Innovation Foundation calls potentially “the steepest cuts for federal R&D investment in US history.” However, this Budget is for now just a ‘skinny’ draft.

In the UK, there is the fact that Brexit sits at the forefront of the current General Election campaign. Here, science faces both an across-the-board 10 per cent budget cut through the loss of EU funding and much more heavily restricted access to what is currently considered the world’s best infrastructure for scientific research (some key issues here are considered in this extract from evidence given by Dr Mike Galsworthy and Dr Rob Davidson to the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology - it’s a long read, but an important one).

These are clear and present dangers. But at the same time, any lobbying must remain non-partisan. Politics are at fever pitch in both the UK and the US. That’s why the marches kept the politicians away from the stage (some did attend US marches individually but, in the UK, few if any could anyway as they kick-started constituency party engines over the first weekend of a General Election campaign). There is an even more delicate balance to maintain than usual, but science must make its voice be heard.

The good news, coming back to the marches, is that they showed this can be done. Stick to the facts. Stick to the evidence. And make sure both of them do stick.

So, if you agree with that, what are you now going to do about it? How about these? Even if you couldn’t attend on the day, you can take these steps:

March for Science US main site

March for Science US list of partners

March for Science London

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