Recent government attitudes have raised concerns about the future of science and spurred researchers and their advocates into taking action. Along with a number of Marches for Science taking place around the world April 22, Rhode Island will host its own event, beginning at the state house.
The march “has the endorsement of an enormous number of well-respected scientific organizations,” said Susan Gerbi, professor of biochemistry and an organizer for the March for Science RI.
The March for Science RI “advocates for publicly funded scientific research and evidence-based policies that are unrestricted by partisan politics, in solidarity with all who value science worldwide,” according to the mission statement on the march’s website.
The march is meant “to show that people support science and that they recognize the value of science in their lives,” said Rich Ribb, an organizer for the march in Rhode Island. “The funding for scientific research is under attack at this point, and people who do recognize that value are taking the opportunity to speak out about it.”
A campus-wide email sent April 13 by Provost Richard Locke and Vice President for Research David Savitz echoed these sentiments. They stressed the importance of science in fulfilling the University’s mission to create successful scholars and emphasized the necessity of advocating for science. While the University does not generally sponsor participation in marches, it does recognize that they are a form of advocacy, according to the email.
While many organizations support marches, there have been concerns raised nationally about the politicization of science through these events. A Jan. 31 New York Times opinion titled, “A Scientists’ March on Washington is a Bad Idea” by Robert S. Young, a professor of coastal geology at Western Carolina University, claims that rather than persuading the government to support science, a march will only serve to reaffirm the notion that scientists are an “interest group.”
But many University scientists do not share Young’s worries. Andrew Lynn GS, who is part of the Department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences, said he has no immediate concerns about the march and that he plans on attending it “without reservation.”
“We are in an era in which the way that people structure their beliefs around science is of concern,” Lynn said. “Maybe it is becoming a political issue, but I think that pretending that it’s not is potentially” a risk.
Michael Monn GS, who studies in the School of Engineering, is helping to organize a group of students who will attend the march in Boston. Advocating for any science is defending all sciences as well as the scientific process, Monn said. “To say ‘I don’t believe in climate change’ is to say ‘I don’t believe in the scientific method,’ and ‘I don’t believe in evidence to support hypotheses,’ and that is a more fundamental problem,’” he added.
Christopher Kahler, professor of behavioral and social sciences, said that the purpose of this march is to advocate for policies in government and funding that would benefit science and to show the value of science to society as a whole.
“I’m definitely in support of (the march),” said Joe Hogan, professor of biostatistics. Hogan also does not view science as political, but he sees science under attack by politicians. The marches are important in keeping the public aware of important scientific issues that should not be politicized, such as climate change and vaccinations, he said.
Baylor Fox-Kemper, associate professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences, is also an advocate for the march. The event is meant to reveal to people the ways in which science is important in their lives as well as the amount of support there is for science in the United States, he said.
While he does have some concerns about the politicization of science, Ira Wilson, professor of health services, policy and practice, thinks that it is more important for scientists and its advocates to “stand up and be counted” in a time when science is being both ignored and politicized. Wilson will be attending the March for Science in Washington, D.C.
“As a scientist, I was never really involved in activism,” said Stephon Alexander, professor of physics, adding that the current political landscape has spurred him to “march to make sure the next generation of scientists have a fighting chance.” Alexander said that it would be hypocritical not to protest because science is inherently political, as researchers’ work are used to create weapons such as missiles. It would also be hypocritical for anyone to claim that they are against science because “if you use a cellphone, if you use an airplane, you’re trusting science,” he added.
The march is a response to the “perceived exclusivity of science,” as scientists want the general public to understand that everyone is part of the scientific endeavour, Alexander said. As a form of “local activism” to combat notions of science being elitist, he is also developing a fall 2017 course, PHYS 0150: “The Jazz of Modern Physics,” which is designed for students outside of the physics concentration and aims to make physics more approachable.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated that Stephon Alexander is the chair of the physics department. Alexander is not chair of the department, rather he is a professor of physics. The Herald regrets the error.