On Saturday April 22, 2017, scientists descended upon the nation's capital, as well as hundreds of cities across the U.S. to champion robustly funded and publicly communicated science. Although it was an unambiguously political movement, the event was also billed as nonpartisan — the misuse and misrepresentation of science has occurred on both sides of the aisle. Above all, the March was a celebration of science and the roles it plays in our daily (and nightly) lives.
There were a number of political hotspots to the March for Science — the proposed budget cuts to the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency were one. Astronomy and planetary science, on the other hand, have managed to stay out of budgetary sightlines. Nevertheless, astronomers were as eager to participate in the march as any. Below, share the experience with some of the more celestially minded participants of the March for Science in D.C. and beyond: Casey Dreier from The Planetary Society, Heather Bloemhard from the American Astronomical Society, and John Barentine from the International Dark-Sky Association.
The Planetary Society
Casey Dreier, Director of Space Policy
I went to the March for Science in D.C. as a participant. I was there to be part of the experience, to be part of history, and to share that moment with our members and with Bill Nye, the CEO of the Planetary Society (who spoke at the event). It was a cold, miserable, wet day, just raining constantly, and I thought it would affect turn out. But people turned up — they got wet, but they came anyway. We held signs and umbrellas and kept the naïve hope that our rain jackets would keep us dry.
What was moving to me was to see that people weren’t just there to have a good time, they were there to make a statement — they felt that science’s role in shaping public policy was that important. The attendees ranged over a broad spectrum: kids, families, lots of scientists. There were people whose jobs would be affected by recent budget proposals and people who just enjoy learning things about the natural world.
The overall mood was positive and peaceful — wet of course, but everybody was still in a good mood. There was a sense of energy and commitment, a lot of talk about why we were there. Just being present was a powerful thing. We were all there to show this widespread understanding, appreciation, and respect for science and what can be derived from the scientific process.
It’s crazy that we have to state that so obviously, but there’s a lot of misunderstanding about the process of science. There are all of these different fields — astronomy, environmental science, geology — that share a common approach. Even though Earth science isn’t in the Planetary Society’s purview, at our core we’re a pro-science organization. So if someone attacks the science underlying, say, climate change, they’re actually attacking every other field of science — they’re attacking the method itself. We don’t get to choose the results we like. We may not like the conclusion of a study, but that’s a different conversation. The process itself is reliable, and that’s really what we’re saying with our motto, “Science is Universal.”
At the March for Science, we were there to give everyone a reminder: We can’t just passively expect that science will be accepted and shape policy, we have to actively work to make that connection. And it’s not a partisan thing — science is an incredible tool that has the potential to improve the human condition across the world. So we need to shift from expecting science to be part of the process, to demanding that it be. The long-term effects of the March for Science will be hard to quantify directly, but it’s a powerful thing when we come together in the tens of thousands. Now we hope that the participants will go home and become more engaged in local elections, and share their experience with their friends, family, church, and every part of their social circle.
American Astronomical Society
Heather Bloemhard, John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow
The March for Science / Earth Day 2017 found members of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) standing in the rain in Washington D.C. as speakers addressed the crowd. Healthcare professionals, farmers, and firefighters told us about the importance of basic science research in their fields. Astronauts, scientists, and science communicators from different backgrounds shared their stories and enthusiasm for science. The speakers told us what most of us already know — that science has the power to help and inspire people. For those reasons, and so many more, science is a vital pursuit for our nation that must be accessible to everyone.
Speakers and crowd alike seemed to agree that our policy makers must support science, so that science can in turn best inform policy. For me, the March for Science meant finding solidarity with a group of like-minded individuals, and there’s joy in that. The sentiment “I can’t believe we have to march for this” was fairly common. But times are changing. My concern is that if we don’t figure out how to reach out to the people who disagree with us, we won’t convince them of the value of science. Those are hard conversations, and I don’t know the best way to have them yet. But as I made my way home from the March for Science, one thing was clear to me: scientists and science enthusiasts need to do a better job of branching out and having those conversations, whether it be through advocacy, community outreach, or something else entirely.
International Dark-Sky Association
John Barentine, Program Manager
The Tucson March for Science was held at a small downtown plaza, a venue that appeared packed with about 1,000 people in attendance. As was the case at other sites around the U.S. and the world on April 22nd, the attendees played their part: many wore T-shirts with science-themed slogans and carried signs to the same effect.
A central stage hosted a series of speakers and musical acts beginning at 10 a.m., and there were about three-dozen exhibitors, ranging from local colleges and centers at the University of Arizona to a variety of local nonprofits and political organizations. I put up one of IDA’s pop-up displays on the theme of night-sky heritage; the display garnered a lot of attention and started many conversations.
Our most popular giveaways were postcards advertising the Globe At Night citizen-science program. The project appeared to speak to passers-by — it’s valuable, cutting-edge science in which they can become directly involved. We emphasized to parents and teachers alike the project’s kid-friendly and interactive nature, and that they can see their contribution posted alongside those from all over the world.
Many of the folks we talked to were already aware of why we want to keep our skies dark — many even identified Tucson’s dark skies as a key part of the city’s identity. But not everyone knew about the connection between all the astronomy activity in the area and the city’s outdoor lighting code. And some, who weren’t already familiar with the IDA, seemed surprised to learn that an organization like it even exists. Homeowners asked us where they can find dark-sky-friendly lighting (we can help with that!) and teachers were happy to learn of the K-12 educational material we offer.
Overall the event was jubilant. The protest signs were often humorous, but they made their point. Everyone who comes to an event like this knows what’s at stake, and the camaraderie of the like-minded is reassuring in the face of the challenges that the scientific enterprise faces now. The unanswered question in Tucson and other places is: what comes next? Was today’s event a one-off, or the start of a movement?