Scientists prepare for protest: 'the march should be a starting point'

Ian Sample Science editor
The motivations of marchers in Britain, where more than 10,000 people are expected in Edinburgh, Cardiff, Manchester, Bristol and London, are not necessarily the same as those in Washington DC and elsewhere. Photograph: Steven Senne/AP

The placards are made, the speeches prepared. On Saturday, crowds in their thousands are expected at 500 marches in more than 35 countries to remind the world, and its many politicians, that society cannot thrive without science. It will be the largest show of solidarity for science the globe has ever seen.

Arranged to coincide with Earth Day, the anniversary of the modern environmental movement, organisers hope that the mobilisation of so many can help restore science to what they consider to be its rightful place. But despite healthy support for the events – more than 100 professional societies and organisations have endorsed them – marches alone will not be enough, according to researchers who study protest movements.

“They will have to keep active after the march,” said Ilaria Favretto, professor of contemporary European history at Kingston University and author of Protest, Popular Culture and Tradition in Modern and Contemporary Western Europe, a book published this month. “It is crucial for the movement to last and gain increasing visibility and support, not just among the wider public, but among the mainstream political parties.”

Another researcher, Cristina Flesher Fominaya, a sociologist at the University of Aberdeen, and author of Social Movements and Globalisation: How Protests, Occupations and Uprisings are Changing the World, said what happens after a march is often more important than the march itself. “The point of a march should never be to just leave it there,” she said. “The march should be a starting point, a demonstration of solidarity and unity, and it should create the base for a movement to emerge and carry on its work with renewed energy.”

The March for Science began in the US as a grassroots response to what some consider to be president Donald Trump’s anti-science agenda, but support spread swiftly to other nations. In the US, organisers have since done their best to depoliticise the march, framing it more as a celebration of science. In reality, those marching have a raft of different reasons for doing so. The motivations of marchers in Britain, where more than 10,000 people are expected in Edinburgh, Cardiff, Manchester, Bristol and London, are not necessarily the same as those in Washington DC and elsewhere.

“It started in the US and solidarity with our US colleagues at a time when they are under a lot of pressure is very important,” said Sir Brian Hoskins, director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College who will attend the march in London. “I also want to stress both in the UK and around the world the importance of science and scientific evidence. It cannot just be dismissed on a political whim,” he said.

Jon Butterworth, head of physics at UCL, will speak at the London march. “We need science to understand the society and the world we live in now more than we ever did,” he said.

In Britain, many scientists are concerned about what Brexit will mean not just for EU funding, but for the free movement of researchers, which many consider to be vital. “Science is very international, people are very mobile and outward looking, and we’re used to working with people from different cultures and nationalities with mutual respect, and a lot of that is under threat from multiple directions, not just from Brexit and Trump,” said Butterworth.

Britain’s exit from the EU could jeopardise substantial funding that goes towards blue skies research, Hoskins said, leaving much of UK science skewed towards applications and products. “Blue skies research, which it all depends on in the end, is difficult to fund, and a lot of it in the UK comes from EU,” he said. “That is a real threat. We’re in danger of losing the idea of the pursuit of knowledge.”

According to Favretto, marches are still an effective form of protest, but she said some younger people see them as outdated, not least after witnessing the failure of the marches against the Iraq war to change the course of the conflict. Beside raising public awareness and bringing issues to the attention of political powers, marches build a community around a shared concern, she said, adding that songs, slogans and symbols all help to create a sense of solidarity, and unify people in their cause. “You might not know the person you are marching next to, but when you shout the same slogans and sing the same songs, that creates a sense of community,” she said.

In 2010, researchers in Britain took part in the Science is Vital march to warn against drastic cuts to government science funding. Andrew Steele, director of the organisation, will march again on Saturday. What happens after the march “is a real challenge,” he said. “I don’t know what the next campaign will look like. Whether it’s a petition, or whether we lobby government, or target constituencies in the election to highlight how many voters care about science, we need some way of addressing all those people together,” he said. “And that’s something that an event like the march can really sow the seeds for.”

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