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Marching for Science: Did it Work?

Both the March for Science (April 23rd) and the People’s Climate Movement (April 29th) drew tens of thousands of people around the world to fight for policy supporting science and combating climate change.

The majority of the scientific community feels threatened because of the outcome of the 2016 Election for the President of the United States due to the current administration’s inability to accept basic scientific facts, such as the existence of climate change and the effects of vaccines (and many, many more). Donald Trump’s presidency has already seen a subjugation of science. His administration has scrubbed the official government website free of any mention of climate change. His budget proposals stripped millions from scientific research of all kinds, including health research. It has begun a war on science.
Tens of thousands of people decided to show their dissent with this war by taking to the streets. Both marches were non-violent and drew supporters across the world, but each had a particular focus.

The March for Science was a non-partisan protest, drawing supporters of science from both sides of the political spectrum on Earth Day 2017. Many, however, did criticize our current President with signs and even… well, interesting  ideas. The goals of the march were to “strengthen the role of science in policymaking, improve science outreach and communication, advance science education and scientific literacy, and foster a diverse and inclusive scientific community.” Attendees rallied together to fight the suppression of science, such as the gag rule placed only days after inauguration on the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Agriculture. Most were marching to spread awareness to Trump’s budget cut proposals to science, such as the $12.6 billion proposed cut to the Department of Health and Human Services. Marchers believed that it was time to stand up for science and show that Americans will not settle for “alternative facts.

One week later, on the 100th day of Trump’s Presidency, tens of thousands attended the People’s Climate March for Jobs, Justice, and the Climate in major cities across the country a
nd world. Although this march also acknowledged that science is integral to society, it had a greater emphasis on the social, economic and political aspects of climate change. On the front lines of the march were indigenous peoples, people of color, and other marginalized communities who are disproportionately affected by environmental issues. It aimed to show that climate change is not a hoax, and that we should trust the scientists who tell us so.

One of the main reasons people protest, psychologists say, is simply to vent emotions. Marches, including these two, are certainly successful at achieving that. But… did any of it matter? Are these political marches going to affect the way our government sees and funds science?

Some people seems to think so. Public opinion is split along party lines with 44% of adults responding that the recent actions will boost public support for science, according to a Pew Research Center Survey.

But what about concrete, policy action?

Well, it depends.

It’s a common fallacy to equate correlation with causation, making it difficult to analyze the true effects of political protests, which means that policy goals being achieved does not necessarily mean that the protests caused that achievement. Many times, there are multiple reasons for policymakers to create or vote for a policy; saying that one thing only caused it is erroneous and unscientific.

Nevertheless, comparing studies and history to the Science and Climate marches seems to prove hopeful. Throughout history, non-violent protests tend to have been much more effective than their violent counterparts, but truly effective campaigns have sought more than just street protests. For example, the Tea Party movement in the United States began with combinations of marches, congressional outreach, and appearances at town halls. Subsequently, the following congressional election saw more conservative members winning seats. Both of the marches in April 2017 included action plans for attendees before and/or after the marches, with the intention of getting people more politically active. Whether they will continue building into a movement for science is yet to be seen.

When fighting for science, our goal is to show these policy makers why our cause is important. Large numbers of protesters can help sway members of congress who are concerned with re-election. One study published in the American Journal of Political Science used multiple social movements to conclude that marches, especially local ones, are effective. Another study on the U.S. Environmental Movement since 1960 found evidence for”an amplification mechanism between environmental movement protest and public opinion, where public opinion affects policy above and beyond its independent effect when protest raises the salience of the issue to legislators.” In other words, protests like the March for Science can help show legislators that these issues are important to the people they serve, thus affecting the policy outcomes.

As mentioned, one of the major reasons people attended the March for Science was to protest President Trump’s proposed budget plan. When it came time for Congress to set budgets (and thwart a government shutdown) a week after the People’s Climate March, they sided with the protesters, not the President.

The budget was a modest, but valuable, win for science. Overall research and development spending is expected to grow 5% under the new plan. NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), the NIH (National Institute of Health), and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) all received a growth in the amount of funding they receive from congress, with NASA obtaining significant budget growth. The Environmental Protection Agency, predictably, did get a cut- though it is not nearly as drastic as President Trump had proposed.

Regardless of whether the marches affected these numbers or not, we must continue fighting for our right to science. Without public support, science and climate change will fade to the back of policymakers’ minds. Contact your representatives and tell them that advancing science in our society is important to you.

Science isn’t just about people in white coats pouring chemicals. It’s about saving lives, saving the planet, and ultimately doing the most human thing any of us can do: learn.

Edited by: Karen Yung and Daryn Dever