Massive March for Science Planned for Washington Plagued by Infighting

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By Nahema Marchal | 2:27 pm, March 28, 2017

Following in the footsteps of the Women’s March on Washington, the March for Science promises to be the biggest public demonstration against the Trump administration’s assault on evidence-based scientific research.

But just like the Women’s March before it, it looks like plans for the march are being compromised by infighting among organizers over what the event should stand for, whether it should be explicitly political and who is best placed to represent the concerns of the scientific community at large.

The March for Science, in other words, is having a bit of an identity crisis.

According to an in depth-report in science magazine STAT, the operational discord is such that a number of scientists have left the organizing committee while others pledged not to attend the event.

First dreamed up in January and triggered by news that the Trump administration had issued a gag order on the Environmental Protection Agency staff—banning them from communicating to the public about climate change—MfS has since gained an impressive global following.

In under two months, the group’s Facebook page has racked up more than 393,000 likes while its Twitter account boasts 341,000 followers. As of the time of writing, 7,000 have already pledged on Facebook to attend the main event in D.C. and there are currently nearly 400 sister marches being organized in various parts of the country.

But as the event grew, so did the internal discord, forcing the committee to reckon with long-standing issues within the scientific community.

At the core of the dispute are divergent opinions about the march’s core message. While some argue the march should promote science itself, pushing for better funding, objectivity and recognition of scientific achievement, others say it should champion intersectionality and use the platform to highlight racial and gender-based discrimination faced by scientists in their respective fields.

https://twitter.com/Hood_Biologist/status/824342883847307264

In a lengthy blog post, sociologist Zuleyka Zevallos outlined some of “diversity” issues” that plagued the planning committee in the early days of the movement. Organizers, she writes, were not only perpetuating harmful stereotypes about women on social media but their “apolitical” stance ignored the concerns of marginalized scientists.

Organizers responded to “complaints” and “feedback” about diversity by publishing a diversity statement on their website that drew heavily on social justice language.

It said the committee would work to centralize and act as allies with “black, Latinx, API, indigenous, Muslim, Jewish, women, people with disabilities, poor, gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer,  trans, non-binary, agender, and intersex scientists and science advocates.”

But critics in the scientific community, including Harvard’s Steven Pinker, worried that this left-wing language would “distract” and water down the march’s message.

It’s precisely this kind of resistance to addressing broader structural issues in science that pushed Jacquelyn Gill, a biology and ecology professor at the University of Maine told leave the organizing committee.

“We were really in this position where, because the march failed to actively address those structural inequalities within its own organization and then to effectively communicate those values outward, we carried those inequalities forward,” Gill told STAT. “Some of these problems stem from the march leadership failing early on in its messaging.”

Other scientists who criticized the March for Science online claim they became targets of harassment, which prompted organizers to include an anti-harassment clause to the website.

The diversity statement is now in its fourth version and is proudly all-inclusive (which makes it sound kind of like an equal opportunity employment policy statement.)

“We are people who value science: scientists, educators, journalists, students, neighbors, friends, and family. We come from all races, all religions, all gender identities, all sexual orientations, all abilities, all socioeconomic backgrounds, all political perspectives, and all nationalities. Our diversity is our greatest strength: a wealth of opinions, perspectives, and ideas is critical for the scientific process. What unites us is a love of science, and an insatiable curiosity. We all recognize that science is everywhere and affects everyone.”

But too late, for Shane Morris, a Nashville-based consultant, who told STAT he left the committee after merely a week because he was worried leaders saw the march — and satisfying inclusivity demands — as an end in itself rather than focusing on the movement’s legacy.

“I’m definitely not against talking about equality issues,” he said, “I just felt it was an inappropriate forum.” He added, “If you’re not interested in passing policy, then why are we walking around?”

Despite a fair amount of bickering over inclusivity, the Women’s March on Washington was, in many respects,  a resounding success. It galvanized a young generation of men and women who are often viewed as apolitical and pushed them to carry on the conversation (and actions) beyond the protest.

But as with many other demonstrations of this type, amassing a large and diverse enough crowd is only half the job.

The real litmus test is impact. We’ll see how strong the March for Science’s dissemination plan is.

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Since the publication of the STAT piece, one of the march’s organizers in charge of the diversity team, Rachael Holloway, published a statement claiming it inaccurately represented her views by suggesting science and diversity were at odds.

” I am deeply committed to ensuring that inclusion, diversity, and accessibility are highlighted and emphasized both in science and in our communities” she wrote on Twitter.

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