Science march's political overtones spark debate

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 15: Tax Day demonstrators march to the Lincoln Memorial April 15, 2017 in Washington, DC. Activists gathered in cities nationwide to demand President Donald Trump release his tax returns. (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

(CNN)A march aimed at promoting scientific-based public policy in the Trump era is raising questions about the appropriateness of mixing science with politics.

The "March for Science" -- whose beginnings reflect the viral birth of the Women's March on Washington -- occurs this Earth Day. It will be comprised of scientists and their supporters, and largely grew out of opposition to President Donald Trump's environmental and energy policies.
The event's website bills itself as "the first step of a global movement to defend the vital role science plays in our health, safety, economies and governments."
Clearly aware of the potential criticism, the march's website addresses the issue: "The march is explicitly a political movement, aimed at holding leaders in politics and science accountable," though it stresses that it is intended to be non-partisan.
    The main rally occurs Saturday on the National Mall and will feature luminaries such as Bill Nye the Science Guy as well as Dr. Mona Hanna-Attish, who helped bring national attention to the Flint water crisis.
    There are also more than 500 "satellite marches" scheduled to occur around the world on the same day.
    "Scientists didn't politicize science," said Dr. Gretchen Goldman, a research director for the Union of Concerned Scientists who is helping promote and plans to attend the march. "Whether we as a scientific community like it or not, science has been politicized."
    She went on to say the march is a "huge moment and huge opportunity" to expand the scientific community's influence on policy.
    Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist who has served as one of the march's leading organizers, added: "Science has never been independent from politics."
    When asked about criticism that the march might be too political or partisan, Johnson cited cases from Galileo to the Flint water crisis to show that science and politics have had a long and at times antagonistic relationship.
    Johnson first was inspired to join the march -- which began with a Reddit comment in January -- after hearing about data scientists working to archive and preserve information due to fears that the government might delete them.
    "That thought was just so horrifying," she said. "It would never occur to me that deleting data was a viable thing to do."
    But Dr. Robert Young, the director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University, is concerned the march will turn off Trump supporters and those who need to be reminded "why science is important."
    "I don't think the march is going to communicate with that group at all," Young insisted, adding, that if anything it will play into the narrative that scientists are in bed with liberal politicians.
    Young, who wrote an op-ed for The New York Times in late January explaining why he opposed the march, suggested that the march's goals could be carried out by having scientists appear on radio stations or visit rural communities at Kiwanis clubs and other local events rather than more antagonistic approaches like protesting.
    "Showing up at a march is easy. It's not a lot to ask of somebody," Young said.
    March supporters say that they do not intend for this to be a fleeting movement, and want to engage outside of the scientific community. Goldman hopes that people involved in the march continue to press Congress and speak out in their communities.
    "This is just the beginning," Goldman said. "We need to think about where we go from here and make sure that it is a big, diverse, inclusive movement that puts science to work for people."