At first glance, the March for Science in San Francisco appeared similar to other marches held over the past few months: a sea of signs and people in sunscreen and running shoes, many with their kids in tow. But after looking closer, a couple notable differences stood out. Here and there were people in lab coats and safety glasses, and the signs carried by marchers had a distinctly nerdy bent. These scientists and science enthusiasts were up in arms, though the atmosphere overall was positive. People were eager to advocate for science, fight for its recognition, and stand united against rising hostility towards science.
The March for Science, held on Earth Day in Washington, D.C. and 600-plus satellite locations around the world, was spawned from the enthusiasm of the Women’s Marches that occurred on January 21st, 2017. In the era of “alternative facts”, and with the Trump administration vowing to slash funding to scientific agencies and ordering silence from government scientists working on topics like climate change, scientists are facing an unprecedented existential crisis. Suddenly we can’t assume that people will trust our methods to determine the truth. We’re watching as the fascinating, important, and often life-saving work we do is disregarded by powerful people, cast aside as unnecessary or even wrong. It’s painful to witness, as we think back on history to before the Environmental Protection Agency regulated industrial pollution of the environment, or before scientists developed vaccines to eradicate deadly diseases like smallpox.
The Bay Area, home to roughly seven million people and a global leader in science, technology, and innovation, hosted seven different satellite marches, with San Francisco drawing 50,000 of the 67,000 total Bay Area marchers. On the morning of April 22nd, scientists and science enthusiasts walked, bused, and took trains to the Justin Herman Plaza. There, against the backdrop of the distinctive Ferry Building with its clock tower and the surrounding waterfront, a diverse range of speakers took to the stage to advocate for government-funded science, scientific literacy, and science-based policy.
One of the earlier speakers was Dr. DJ Patil, a former US Chief Data Scientist who greeted the crowd with, “Let’s just start off by saying—it’s an interesting time we live in right now.” Patil touched on the role of our future generation of scientists, the key role immigrants and refugees play in American science and innovation, and the importance of the governmental agencies facing severe proposed budget cuts.
The following speakers, mostly scientists themselves, reiterated the importance of evidence-based policies and science, adding in their unique perspectives and advice. As Kishore Hari—the rally’s MC, march organizer, and Director of the Bay Area Science Festival—introduced the final speaker, a huge roar of applause spread across the plaza. Adam Savage, a maker and designer widely known for starring on MythBusters and Tested, stepped up to the mic.
Savage is not a scientist, but as Hari so aptly described, “he represents the best of science, the spirit of the scientist—an unending curiosity, a hunger to learn, make, and discover.” Savage had a message, not just for scientists, and not just for those who already agreed with him, but for everyone, because everyone, he assumes, wants a better life for their families and communities: “Science is the key way to achieve that.”
Savage offered his own definition of science, much more succinct than the one found in most dictionaries: “Science is the systematic reduction of ignorance.” And it has an enemy. He explained that bias is the enemy of science and we all must confront our personal and institutional biases to “help science gain the upper hand.”
As the beginning of the march approached, the plaza quickly overflowed with participants who packed into sidewalks, green spaces, and the area between Market Street and Embarcadero Street usually filled by a weekend market. Eventually the expectant crowd expanded onto Market Street due to a lack of anywhere else to stand.
The rally closed with this call-and-response cheer led by Savage: “What do we want? Evidence-based science! When do we want it? After peer review!” Then the marchers were off, slowly funneling onto Market Street and picking up speed, until the procession moved at a normal walking pace. Signs were held high for other marchers to see while onlookers who lined the street smiled, laughed, and took pictures.
This persisted for about an hour and a half, with marchers spreading out near the Civic Center and dispersing to after-march science fair activities. A few who weren’t ready to end the celebration of science even made their way to Berkeley for the afternoon march.
In Berkeley, a group of graduate students organized a rally and march starting from Sproul Plaza, the site of multiple demonstrations during the Free Speech Movement. A crowd of over a thousand students and community members cheered as speakers described how their experiences as researchers inspired them to become activists. In addition to celebrating the importance of basic research and the value of a scientific mindset, the speakers reminded scientists about the internal work needed to improve their own communities. Graduate student Frances Roberts-Gregory described the barriers she has faced as a Black woman pursuing scientific research and advocated thinking more broadly about what a scientist looks like and who science is designed to serve.
Lydia Majure, a neuroscience postdoc and trustee on the executive board of the UC Postdoc Union, responded to the criticism that science should not be political. In the days leading up to the march, debates over the goals of the march and whether marching at all would be counterproductive had roiled online, with people weighing the merits of promoting the positive aspects of science against the risk of pushback for opposing the Trump administration’s anti-science agenda. Majure engaged the issue by pointing out that “science has always been influenced by and influenced the political climate.” Rather than viewing activism as a threat to impartiality, she argued that “staying quiet and laying low…is a good way to get stepped on.”
After the rally, the crowd marched through Sather Gate to chants of, “Stand up! For science!” and streamed through campus and onto the streets of downtown Berkeley. Signs carried by marchers reflected a commitment to science and the planet from people of all ages: the sign on a toddler’s stroller featured a drawing of Earth captioned, “Save some for me!”; a student wrote, “When I majored in astrophysics, I didn’t know I’d be fleeing this planet”; and a woman’s sign proclaimed, “I need science to cure my cancer.”
March organizers hoped that the stream of activism would continue far beyond a one-day display. The National March for Science promoted a week of action following the march with daily goals including writing to legislators in support of basic research funding, donating school supplies to a low-socioeconomic-status school, and attending the People’s Climate March the following Saturday. At the conclusion of the Berkeley march, leaders from the UC Student-Workers Union passed out flyers and urged participants to support an upcoming bill in the California legislature that would allow UC graduate student researchers to unionize.
After the march, Bay Area scientists and their supporters appeared ready to follow Patil’s admonition: “Science can’t wait. Let’s get to work.”
About the authors:
Jo Downes Bairzin is a PhD student in molecular and cell biology, studying how signaling pathways coordinate to control tissue growth. She is also the Art Director for the Berkeley Science Review, and she writes at jobairzin.wordpress.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @josephine__q.
Erika Anderson is a graduate student in molecular and cell biology. She studies chromosome structure in the tiny worm C. elegans.
Natalie Gibson is a PhD student in the Department of Chemistry. She is a physical chemist who studies how nanoparticles interact with light.
Featured image credit: Photograph by Natalie Gibson.