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Commissioner: I would join the march for science

EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas praises scientists for finding their voice. At a time when facts are ignored and experts denigrated, it is great that researchers will show up and tell people how important science is, he tells Science|Business

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EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas says he supports the global science march on April 22 – and might even join in himself.

“I would be willing to be part of it,” he told Science|Business on Monday after awarding the ‘better use of antibiotics’ prize at a ceremony in Leuven University. “I’d love if some of the organisers would contact me with more information – I could show up as someone who really loves science.”

The idea for the rally, planned for Washington DC and some 20 European cities including Amsterdam, Brussels, Edinburgh, London and Paris, was sparked on January 20 in response to news that all references to climate change had been deleted from the White House website, hours after Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th US president.

A science movement quickly spawned on a Reddit forum, inspired by the huge turnout for the Women’s March in Washington, DC the day after Trump’s inauguration. It quickly grew online, with over 300,000 people interested or saying they will take part on the event’s Facebook page. The march is now expected to be the biggest public assembly of scientists to date.

Moedas says he cannot remember a mass rally like it in his lifetime. “I think it is great that scientists and researchers will show up and tell the people how important science is, at a time where there are doubts about the [quality and source] of evidence. It is being driven by civil society and not politicians and I think that is right,” he said. However, in his comments to Science|Business, Moedas said he is withholding judgment on the new administration, given the continued importance of US-EU cooperation.

Valorie Aquino, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico and one of the original organisers of the event said, “The march is an idea that went viral because so many people are alarmed about the increasing trend to discredit scientific expertise, and recent actions [that] threaten many members in the science community.”

It is a response to what the organisers view as the anti-scientific attitude of the new US administration under President Trump, who has repeatedly called climate change a “hoax” – although he more recently said he would keep an “open mind” about it – questioned the proven safety of vaccines, apparently muzzled White House employees from sharing science data over Twitter, and frozen grants and contracts by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Additionally, a former adviser to Trump, Myron Ebell, told an audience in Brussels last week that the President is likely to pull out of the landmark Paris climate change agreement signed by 190 countries.

As a measure of how seriously Trump’s comments have been viewed in Brussels, a letter to EU member states last week from the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, placed the “worrying declarations by the new American administration” as one in a series of external threats facing the EU, which also included instability in the Middle East and Africa, terrorism, and an aggressive Russia.

Moedas is as uneasy as anyone about a growing disdain for science and evidence, but does not want to rush to judgement on the new US administration.

“In general we are living in a very dangerous time. When you look at people who are using words and comments about science that are negative, I don’t like it, be it in the US or somewhere else,” he said.

However, there is much that is still unclear about the administration’s views on science, Moedas said. “Talking immediately about [the administration] is not fair. We have to wait and see, and find out who our new counterparts will be. I’m hoping the appointment of a new science adviser will be soon.”

Maintaining strong science ties with the US remains a number one issue for the Commissioner. “We have to stay united and maintain our alliance with the US. We recently signed an agreement to do more research together – I want to continue that,” he said.

Science’s political pulse

The march has sparked an argument about whether a political awakening among researchers is good for science, with some countering that it is better to continue letting data speak for itself.

Maria Lipton, head of the European Molecular Biology Organisation in Heidelberg, Germany, says, “We’re all frustrated with what’s going on in the US”. Lipton and colleagues last week set up the Science Solidarity List, where scientists can offer accommodation or desk space to colleagues stranded as a result of restrictive immigration measures in the US. More than 700 researchers have made offers.

But after reading a New York Times opinion piece by geologist Robert Young with the headline “A Scientists’ March on Washington Is a Bad Idea”, Lipton says she has to “think carefully about whether a march is the best way forward”.

While some see a downside risk in making science political, Aqunio says the march is actually in part a rebuke to those who politicise data, research and findings for their own ends.

“Science has already been politicised,” she said. “Certain research subjects have already become partisan, such as vaccine safety and climate change. Our march did not politicise science; we are protesting partisanship injecting itself into the use and application of scientific research.”

Amie Fairs, a PhD student of psycholinguistics in the Netherlands, intends to march in Amsterdam with her friends and colleagues against Trump’s executive order restricting travel for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries, an action that has affected some researchers.

“Scientific research is definitely a barrier-less enterprise,” she said. “I myself am an immigrant in the Netherlands, and many of my colleagues are also non-Dutch. Stopping the free movement of people who can legally travel will harm science.”

Elmira Mohandesan, an Iran-born postdoctoral fellow at the University of Vienna, says marching probably will not change much. “But we need to say something. Every year funding is getting cut back, so it’s not an easy area of work to be in at the moment,” she said.

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In October 2016, the Science|Network of universities, companies and innovation organisations gathered in Brussels to debate the future of EU R&D programmes. The result: A profusion of ideas, recommendations and warnings for the future of EU research and innovation.