March of the Nerds: PhDs take D.C.

IMG_20170422_174613Becky Mackelprang, PhD Candidate, UC Berkeley
June 13, 2017

The evening of the 2016 Presidential Election began with the excitement of a child on Christmas morning. I was ready to celebrate the election of a woman to the presidency – to see the United States of America lead on climate change and support funding for higher education and research.

But each state that went unexpectedly red felt like opening another present from beneath the Christmas tree to find a lump of coal. And the pile of coal grew in subsequent months with the nomination and confirmation of Scott Pruitt as the new Administrator of the EPA – a man who, as the Attorney General of Oklahoma, sued the EPA 14 times and joined coal power plants to fight against clean air regulations. As the presidency of Donald Trump began, climate change information disappeared from government websites and scientists working for government organizations were told not to discuss their work with the public.

The furor grew and as it reached a fever pitch, word of a scientists’ march began circulating around the internet. Three days after a Science March Facebook group was created, a few hundred thousand people had joined. Having felt completely helpless for months, I was determined to participate. The March for Science was born, and I was in.

While the new administration may have catalyzed scientists to organize and march, the motivation had been growing rapidly – in log growth phase – for years already. In the 1960s and ‘70s, federal agencies provided 70% of basic research funding. This declined slowly but remained at 61% in 2004 before toppling to 44% in 20151. Public trust in science decreased overall in the United States from 1974 to 2010, with the biggest decrease coming from those with the Conservative ideology that now holds the Presidency and both houses of Congress2.

But scientists are supposed to remain non-partisan and unbiased in their work, and speculation rapidly spread that a march by scientists would increase polarization around issues of science, not decrease it. A healthy debate ensued, and the outcome was a reluctant majority of scientists coming out to participate.

My fear is not that science is becoming political. It is that science is dismissed in the pursuit of political agendas that imperil our planet and put the lives of future generations up as collateral. And this isn’t just about climate change. Weak vaccination requirements in Utah have affected my life personally, as I watched my husband’s 9-year-old step brother, Noah, unable to return to school after months and months away from home going through a harrowing bone marrow transplant. A family had traveled with their unvaccinated children and brought home measles. With Noah’s weakened immune system, he was kept out of school for weeks more.

And so, with thousands of stories of science denial affecting peoples’ lives, the March for Science came to be. I wanted to add my voice and my body to this effort at the epicenter of science denial: Washington, D.C.

I have the unusual fortune of being in a family of scientists. My brother and two sisters have Ph.D.s, and I will join their ranks in December. My sisters were able to both come to Washington, D.C., along with my “science cape” (aka lab coat) toting five-year-old niece.

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The morning of the march, we put the finishing touches on the signs we had made and then donned our tie-dyed lab coats and double helix headbands. We helped my niece finish up her poster and put on her own tie-dyed shirt to match us. After some pictures, we took the elevator down to the ground floor of the hotel building, swung open the door to the outside world just in time to see the rain start to fall in earnest. While the nonabsorbent material of lab coats had not been great for tie-dying, the material would serve a purpose now. With umbrellas up and my niece taking turns riding on our backs, we marched to the march.

Crowded between the Washington Monument and a row of port-a-potties, we listened to speakers and talked amongst ourselves and with others in the crowd. There was a vibe of science enthusiasm mixed with the incredulity at the need for all of this. The crowd began to move – crawl, really – as the march began. Packed more densely than bacteria on a Petri dish without antibiotics, we slowly began our migration from the Washington Mall to the Capitol.

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Dodging puddles, avoiding poking or being poked by umbrellas, we chanted and cheered:

“WHAT DO WE WANT?”

“Evidence-based policy!”

“WHEN DO WE WANT IT?”

“After peer review!”

A special sense of camaraderie was in the crowd. As my sisters and I ended our march by the Capitol building, we stopped to look at the signs laid out all around. We clapped in support with the dance circle, chanting “Science, not hate, makes America great!”

Everyone who participated was empowered to make their voices heard – to speak up, to open up new dialogues. John Holdren, former Science and Technology adviser to Barack Obama, encouraged us all to tithe 10% of our working hours to public service, communication, or activism. And since then, I’ve really tried to do that. Will others join me? Will our time pay off? We cannot know the result if we don’t run the experiment.

1: Marvis, J., 2017. Data check: U.S. government share of basic research funding falls below 50%. ScienceMag News, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/03/data-check-us-government-share-basic-research-funding-falls-below-50

2: Gauchat, G., 2012. Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere. Am. Sociol. Rev. 77, 167-187. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0003122412438225

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