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Nerdy and joyous with serious intent: out on the march for science

Scientists and their supporters took to the streets in 500 marches around the world on Saturday to celebrate science and stress the importance of evidence-based policy. Here are some of the scenes in Brussels, Boston and London

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Tens of thousands of scientists and science enthusiasts marched around the world on Saturday to ensure that governments do not dismiss or deny research and evidence. It was a gleeful effort.

Six hundred people and one dog - with the note, “I am a genetically modified organism” pinned to his collar - hit the streets in Brussels to issue forceful pronouncements on the importance of research, but also some good punch lines.

“Got polio? Me neither. Thanks science” read one sign (a footnote touted a longer checklist of the diseases people no longer get thanks to vaccines). Another placard complained, “J'ai mal aux pieds” (I have sore feet).

But there was a serious side, as Carlos Moedas, research commissioner, fresh from a trip to the US, noted in a statement last Friday. The most potent reasons to take to the streets include the proposed $7 billion cut to science funding in the US, the widely-criticised higher education bill in Hungary, which could force the Central European University to close, and the punitive treatment of academics in Turkey following the failed coup last year, Moedas said.

Despite these issues, the mood was cozy – even goofy – rather than confrontational. Speakers called on the public to stand up for science, but broadly absent was any mention of where the motivation for the march came from: the perceived anti-science policies of US President Donald Trump.

True, some people were in the no-nonsense category – holding placards which read “Alternative facts do not exist in science” and “Science is an inoculation against charlatans” – but photographers hoping to capture a picture of an angry scientist had to settle for the marcher carrying an unhappy-face emoji.

Charlotte Thorley, a senior manager at Science|Business and organiser of the Brussels march, said she hopes the day’s march results in sustained, coordinated action – but all of that could come after a celebratory trip to the pub. Comedian and speaker Lieven Scheire wondered aloud if researchers who were reluctant to assemble for a group photo were “xenophobic or just shy”.

Although the sky was rainy, the sun briefly peeped out. “Maybe it’s time for all the pale scientists to crawl back to their labs before they melt into a puddle,” Scheire teased.

A ten-year old weaved among the crowd, handing out flyers advertising a “girl tech fest” for 11-15 year olds. Spotted among the cheerful group of children, teenagers, twentysomethings, parents and the late-middle-aged was European Commission research chief Robert-Jan Smits, who must have felt heartened by the ‘EU ♥ Science’ badges pinned on many jackets.

Smits’ boss, EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas, marched in comfortable-looking navy trainers in Lisbon, another of the hundreds of demonstrations in European cities and around the world.

Boston: Facts matter

In Boston, arguably the science capital of the US, the rally looked more like a huge outdoor science fair than an angry protest march. Several thousand people gathered on the city’s central park, the Boston Common, despite a drizzly chill in the air, to underscore the importance of science generally – and their opposition to Trump in particular. “Make America Think Again,” was one commonly seen placard in the crowd (along with many variants: …Smart Again …Logical Again… Rational Again.)

“It’s my first protest ever,” said one of the marchers, Lori Mattheiss of nearby Andover, Mass. – sporting a big green (for the earth) hat. “I’m over 55 and had cancer – and I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for science. People need to know that science is real, science is important.”

As she spoke, nearby a parade of local researchers got up onto a makeshift stage to profess their own support for science, while a series of entertainers kept children (and many adults) amused with scientific demonstrations – explaining how optical illusions work, the difference between potential energy and kinetic energy, and other stunts more commonly seen in a science museum.

And, this being a well-educated crowd, most of the creativity went into the thousands of home-made signs the marchers carried. A few examples:

  • “You can’t periodically table science.”
  • “Na S Ti W O Mn” (you have to know your periodic table to decipher it.)
  • “π is the only irrational I like.”
  • “Are you serially dillutional?” (with a cartoon drawing of lab beakers.)
  • And, “Science gives me a hadron.”

London: grass roots, the scientific establishment and the politicians

Although President Trump’s perceived anti-science stance was the lightning rod for the unprecedented turn out of scientists, the march was officially non-partisan. But what started as a grass roots movement, was endorsed by 240 scientific and academic bodies in US from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the largest scientific organization in the world, downwards.

In the UK however, the scientific societies were notably mute on the subject. In a comment made before the march, scientists were cautioned against being seen as “overly self-interested” by Katherine Mathieson, chief executive of the British Science Association, the UK counterpart of AAAS. “If only scientists attend these marches, I worry that would only push a larger wedge between scientists and everyone else,” she said.

If the great and the good of science were not there to cheer lead or address the 10,000-strong London march when it rallied outside the Houses of Parliament, the route was symbolic of the importance of science to the UK.

Gathering outside the Science Museum, and around the corner from the Natural History and Geology museums, and Imperial College London, the march passed the Royal Society and went within spitting distance of the Royal Institution.

While more post-grad than professor, the marchers were of all ages and judging by the accents and the different languages being spoken, of many different nationalities. Walking up the middle of the road through the grandest bits of London – Knightsbridge, Mayfair, Piccadilly, Whitehall - on a beautiful spring day, it was impossible not to be in high spirits, even if serious of purpose.

Some marchers wore lab coats, others pink knitted brain hats, as a reminder of the importance of critical thinking and an homage to the huge Women’s March in January.

And as elsewhere, the placards ranged from the profound, to the comic and onto the downright nerdy, as represented by this trio:

  •  “The good thing about science is that it is the truth, whether you believe it or not.”
  •  “We are all lab rats in this experiment.”
  •  And bizarrely, “What do we want? Evidence-based research. When do we want it? After peer review.”

If that is hardly catchy, there were no ear worms either in occasional chants, with ‘Hey ho, hey ho, ignorance has got to go,’ being one case in point.

Overall, the march reflected the fact that scientist are not accustomed to doing politics and protesting, but they do know how to get together and generate a great atmosphere. It also highlighted how passionately they feel about scientific values of objectivity, openness and international collaboration.

If scientists in the US feel under attack, in the UK science has never had it so good. Brexit will inevitably have an impact, but for now the budget is rising, the government is supportive of science and values its contribution to knowledge, the economy and to policy.

As Jon Butterworth, a particle physicist who was a member of the team at CERN that discovered the Higgs Boson, told the rally in Parliament Square, “Science in the UK is not very partisan, it is not political, there is a consensus it is a good thing.”

However, that can lead to science being taken for granted or ignored, he said, adding “Science is the best way we have of not fooling ourselves and that’s really important right now.”

Or as the placards had it, “Facts matter”, “Science is global”, and Science trumps alternative facts.”


London


Brussels: I march because I want to go to Mars and I want a robot to clean my room.


London


Brussels


Brussels: Robert-Jan Smits, Director-General for research and innovation at the European Commission joined the march in Brussels


Brussels: I'm a genetically modified organism.

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Related subjects: Science March