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Reflections on the March for Science

It’s been three months since the March for Science, when over a million people, in over 600 cities, with almost 300 partner organizations took to the streets to champion science for the common good. It was an incredible day. From the stage at the DC march, I looked out on the crowd – well over 100,000 people were standing there in the rain. It blew my mind.

We marched for something. To safeguard and strengthen the role of science in policymaking. To build a diverse and inclusive science community. To remind the world just how valuable science is in our daily lives.

The March for Science in Washington, DC on April 22, 2017. (Photo: Kisha Bari)

As I wrote in Scientific American prior to the march, “I Never Thought I’d Be Marching for Science.” And the march itself felt surreal. I am honored to have been a part of leading it, and proud of what we built together. However, that work is far from done. The need to stand up for science is just as urgent today. In the last three months we’ve seen the Administration and Congress continually disregard science.

Clearly we need to #KeepMarching. Scientific knowledge and reasoning can do so much to benefit our health, well-being, economy, and safety. The potential of the broad and diverse coalition that has came together to stand up for science is stunning. And the scientific community has indeed continued to be politically engaged.

As we steel ourselves for the long haul, let’s not lose the optimism the march instilled. All that potential is still there, ready to be tapped. To remind us of that afterglow and energy, I’m sharing this interview I did the morning after the march with the 2Scientists podcast. Below is an abridged and lightly edited transcript of that conversation, and the full audio is here. #ScienceNotSilence

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Interviewer: So, how did you enjoy the march yesterday?

Ayana: It was really heartwarming. To see tens of thousands of people in DC standing in the rain because they know how valuable science is to society, and how critical it is to include it in policymaking. I found myself thinking, “we threw a party for science and people showed up?!” On a fundamental level it’s just amazing to see people mobilized for something that seems sort of counter intuitive that it would even be necessary.

View from stage at the March for Science in DC. (Photo: Ayana)

Interviewer: So tell us a little bit about your background, what do you do?

Ayana: I’m a marine biologist. For the last ten years, I have focused on integrating science into policymaking. So this march and movement are core to the work I do and the way I see the world. I have a consulting firm that works on providing solutions to ocean conservation issues, and does that in a way that centers social justice. I spend my days thinking about how science can serve communities and support policymaking that is good for people.

Interviewer: What was the motivation for the march? How did it all begin?

Ayana: I joined the team after 2 weeks or so of this flurry of activity where people were thinking “We should march for science. How do we do that?” Our three co-chairs came together to carry this idea forward, and I joined as co-director of partnerships because I was excited about the opportunity to build a broad and diverse coalition of organizations that value the role of science in society and all that it does for our health and well-being and economies. So Teon Brooks (co-director of partnerships) and I led this effort to build a coalition of about 300 organizations all over the world – dozens of scientific societies, nonprofits, educational organizations, universities, museums, aquariums.

Going forward, I’m most excited about partnerships with science centers and outreach organizations, because I’ve learned recently that there is very little public trust in information coming from journalists or politicians, but people do still believe what they read on plaques at museums and at aquariums. So it’s critically important to work with these outreach and education organizations that have been doing this very important work for centuries, of translating science for the public.

And as a marine biologist, I was just completely tickled yesterday to see the Monterey Bay Aquarium had a “March of the Penguins for Science” – all these little penguins marching through the aquarium! [Watch the amazing video!] The staff had signs that said “climate change science is black and white” with pictures of black and white penguins on them, and “happy feet for science policy.” It’s been a thrill to see how all these different organizations have activated themselves with whatever their strengths and particular areas of expertise are. Our challenge is to support building a movement that leverages all of that, all of the wonderful work these organizations are doing individually, and see if there’s a way to make that much stronger than they are as individual voices.

Signs at the March of the Penguins for Science. (via Monterey Bay Aquarium blog)

Interviewer: So you’re talking about the scale of this. You’re saying that it started off as just a flurry of activity. At what point did you realize it was going to turn into this behemoth?

Ayana: When I started to learn about what was happening with all the satellite marches. It’s one thing when a centralized organization has a bunch of partners. It’s another thing to start getting emails from those partners about how they’re mobilizing their membership, and it’s another thing to know that Kishore Hari – who is one of the most amazing people that I have never met – and his team were coordinating over 600 marches all over the world, getting them officially registered, supporting them with materials on diversity and inclusion and how to deal with the press. That was the moment I realized this was something much bigger than I had imagined.

Interviewer: How do you get the general public involved? Because they’re instrumental in making sure this all moves forward.

Ayana: That is an enormous challenge and very important to do. The people at the marches yesterday, the majority of them weren’t scientists, they were people who care about science, kids who wanna be scientists. [Per our survey, 80% of marchers were participating in their first-ever march, and 24% of marchers were scientists.] There was a mother with a sign that read “mother of a future scientist” and her son’s said “future scientist”. That made me miss my mom and wish she were there marching with me. And hearing kids say, “Oh, scientists are cool?!”, that’s a really important moment as well.

Mother and son at the March for Science in DC. (Photo: Ayana)

The public is already a part of this, and there is a huge opportunity to broaden and deepen that engagement. So amongst the goals of the March for Science going forward is improving scientific outreach and communication. The reason that we got ourselves into this situation where we needed to march for science at all is because the scientific community has not been doing a good enough job of explaining the research we do, why it’s so important to our health and well-being and economy, why people should care about it, and why politicians should fund it and use it to create good policy that’s based on evidence.

Interviewer: My personal hope is that the number of scientists who’ve come out for the march is an indication of how many of them now are now prepared to engage.

Ayana: Yeah, and as we know, most people in the US don’t vote. So scientists could be a really important voting segment. It’s about activating scientists as citizens.

Audience Member 1: It seems one obstacle is the growing insularity of science. Specialization makes things much less accessible to people who are not experts. It might be a good pedagogical step to have Ph.D. candidates prepare an explanation of their research and its importance to the lives of people, and deliver that defense to a fifth grade class. If that were a requirement of a thesis defense you would probably have a lot more science who could explain what they were doing and the implications of their work.

Ayana: I would love to see that happen. Scientists need to be able to explain their work, and there are few things along those lines that are happening. One that’s really fun is #TweetYourPhD. You explain your Ph.D. thesis in a tweet, and when you break it down to that level, it becomes hysterical. I did research on how to modify fishing gear to reduce the bycatch of unwanted fish. If I were to tweet that chapter of my dissertation, it would be “put a hole in the side of a fish trap and the baby fish get out.” There’s also the Dance Your Ph.D. competition hosted by Science Magazine and AAAS. Really cool.

But as far as a general trend of hyper-specialization, I actually see the opposite. I came through the National Science Foundation’s IGERT program, which supports interdisciplinary graduate work that spans university departments. Mine was between the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and the economics department at UC San Diego. I was able to complete a PhD in Marine Biology with only about 30% of my research being traditional marine biology – the rest was sociology, anthropology, policy, economics. I think we actually are seeing more interdisciplinary research now, and that’s a trend that I’d like to see continue.

Audience Member 2: A lot of universities now do a 3-minute thesis competition. It started in New Zealand, and I participated in it at the University of Georgia. The judges of the competition, none of them are scientists.

Ayana: New Zealand really seems to be leading the way on a lot of this. They also have an award for science communication, a national award.

Audience Member 3: I saw a picture of a march in Uganda. How awesome is that, to reach all corners of the earth?! I brought my kids and my husband to the march. And I coach Odyssey of the Mind. We try and inspire and encourage and excite kids in a scientific way. I think it’s important to excite the people around you and then have a cascade effect.

March for Science in Uganda. (Photo via Uganda Alliance for Science)

Ayana: Absolutely. I was speaking with Megan Smith yesterday, who was the chief technology officer for America until a few months ago. She’s incredible, and she was saying, imagine if for physical education classes you showed up, and they were like, “today we’re gonna be studying basketball, everybody open your textbooks.” And that’s what we’re doing for science! So things like Odyssey of the Mind are critical because it takes science out of this theoretical, dry setting into science is cool, engineering is cool. And there’s the whole maker movement, which I think is a beautiful thing that’s happening across the world right now. We as a scientific community can engage the public by saying let’s not just read about it and talk about it, let’s do experiments, let’s actually use the scientific method to understand the world around us and see what we can do with that information to make better decisions. Thank you for all the coaching work that you’re doing, that’s so important.

Audience Member 4: I’m with the National Communication Association. We talk about the ability to convey science in a tweet, but science is also very complex. One of the things I’m seeing in public communication is the idea that anyone can understand everything. Meanwhile we have people who are experts on these topics, and at some point we need to trust and engage with those individuals, particularly when talking about public policy, evidence-based research, and decision making.

Ayana: Absolutely. I completely agree. I think everyone can understand general science concepts. For example, sustainable fishing: If you catch fewer fish and let them make babies, then fish populations can recover. If you create protected areas, then ecosystems can rebound. The basic principles should absolutely be conveyed clearly to the public. But the detailed ecosystem dynamics and biochemical reactions involved are not necessarily things that can be explained simply. Scientists go through a decade of training, and that expertise should absolutely be respected.

The trend of oversimplification is a challenge, because you have politicians and public figures, saying “I’m not a scientist, but” and then giving their opinions on what the science says. And we have all the headlines about “Chocolate’s good for you,” and “Coffee will solve all your problems,” and endless examples of journalists and society breaking down into soundbites a reality that is actually much more complicated. As much as I want coffee, wine, and chocolate to be cure-alls, that is not what those papers actually say.

Audience Member 5: When we talk about cap and trade, the biggest problem is the price tag. Some people are poor and just can’t pay. So is it the scientists’ responsibility to come up with a plan that can take care of that aspect?

Ayana: That’s a really important question. Part of the answer is expanding our definition of science, because there’s climate science, which says we need to do something to mitigate our emissions and turn around this terrible trend that we’re on. And then there’s economics and sociology, and those are really important fields of science that have a role in making sure certain communities that are already marginalized – poor communities, communities of color – don’t bear the brunt of these larger problems they haven’t even caused. So we can bring together multiple fields of science and approach this as an interdisciplinary scientific challenge to come up with solutions. There is science that can identify problems, and there is science that can identify solutions.

This something I’ve seen as regards to ocean conservation. When you’re trying to address overfishing on a small island, and much of the fishing has been by foreign fishermen, then saying local fishermen have to stop fishing is not a fair solution. They haven’t caused the problem but their food security and livelihoods are now at risk. So how you manage the transition is a big part of the challenge. How do we manage the transition to clean energy and reduced fossil fuels? How do we manage the transition from overfishing to sustainable fishing in a way that takes care of communities? I think that’s something more scientists need to focus on – how to apply what we know about the way the world works to create solutions that will work for people.

Interviewer: We’re going to have to leave it there. It’s been an absolute pressure talking to you. This is a hugely important subject.

Ayana: My pleasure, thank you for having me.

Some of the March for Science (MFS) organizers on stage at end of rally in DC. Left to right: Bill Nye, Kathleen Rogers (President, Earth Day Network (EDN)), Denis Hayes (coordinated of 1st Earth Day in 1970, co-founder EDN), Teon Brooks (co-director of partnerships, MFS), Caroline Weinberg (co-chair, MFS), Valorie Aquino (co-chair, MFS), Ahmir Khalib Thompson aka Questlove, and me. (Photo: Riccardo Savi / EDN)

Special shoutouts: Thank you to all the ocean organizations who signed on as partners and made me proud to be part of #TeamOcean: Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography, Azul, Central Caribbean Marine Institute, Environmental Defense Fund, Dock to Dish, Greenwave, Lonely Whale Foundation, Marine Conservation Institute, Miami Waterkeeper, Monterey Bay Aquarium, The Nature Conservancy, New York Aquarium, Ocean Foundation, Ocean Media Institute, Oceana, The Oceanography Society, Riverkeeper, Society of Wetlands Scientists, Society for Conservation Biology, Wildlife Conservation Society, and World Ocean Festival.

Engage and Support: To support the March for Science’s ongoing work to champion science for the common good, subscribe to our newsletter for updates on actions you can take, and donate here.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, Ph.D., is a marine biologist, policy expert, and founder of Ocean Collectiv, a consulting firm for conservation solutions that center social justice. She volunteered as co-director of partnerships for the March for Science, and tweets about how we can use the ocean without using it up @ayanaeliza.