March 10, 2017, by Brigitte Nerlich

Making science public: The science march

The other day over coffee I was reading a blog post and an article. They made me think. The blog post on …and Then There’s Physics rattled once again the rotten foundations of the ivory tower stereotype of academia, while the article by Ed Yong in The Atlantic was about the March for Science that’ll be happening around the world on 22 April this year and that’s rattling the conscience of some scientists, science supporters and science critics.

When reading these two texts, I suddenly had this image of a huge ivory tower reaching up into the sky and an endless line of scientists marching out of the tower and into the streets. As you can imagine, I thought there was something wrong with this image.

Towers and streets

The metaphor of the ivory tower has a long history. Like all stereotypes, it has staying-power, despite the fact that science probably never really happened in an albeit metaphorical ivory tower, despite the fact that science has changed enormously over time, and despite the fact that it doesn’t (nor longer does) represent the real world that real scientists inhabit.

The image of scientists suddenly marching out into the streets is also wrong. Scientists, not all of course, but some, have always been ‘in the streets’. Many scientists do their research in streets, in cities, in fields, along rivers, on mountains (see #actuallivingscientists), where they not only mingle with ‘people’ (and animals!), but also talk and interact with them (although, sometimes, it has to be said, they work in locations where no other ‘people’ would like to go or could easily go!).

But they are not only out there in the real world amongst us because of the research they do; they also go out into the streets because they want to talk to people about the research they do. They turn up in schools, shopping malls, museums, market squares, town halls, pubs, on twitter, on YouTube, on television shows and so on to engage with people who are interested in science or concerned about scientific advances of one sort or another. They are active in science communication, science outreach, public engagement, public dialogues, engage with citizen science projects and much more.

And let’s not forget – and this can’t be stressed enough – scientists are people too; they are citizens too; some are even women! On the whole, they care about the world they live in. So they might actually be out there marching for things they want to see happening or changing in the world; or they may be marching in protest against things happening or changing in the world.

The last aspect of the ivory tower image that’s wrong is the following: It’s not about ‘opening up’ ‘the ivory tower’. Science, on the whole, has been open and public for a long time and people can go in and have a look at what’s going on, if they want to. Of course, lots of science is still invisible, because it’s either too tedious, too boring, too dangerous, too fragile, too small, too big and so on; and lots of science is ‘impenetrable’ unless you put in a lot of effort to understand what scientists are talking about. This applies to scientists too, who outside their area of specialism, are just people (with a bit more background knowledge).

Overall then, it’s not surprising to find scientists outside the mythical ivory tower and walking ‘in the streets’. What is surprising is how many there will be in the streets in April this year (and I guess there will be quite a few!). This is because the social and political context in which science happens, but most importantly the context in which scientists, as human beings and as people work, has changed. This has been happening gradually for over a decade or so, but has currently reached something of a tipping point.

Scientists and people

Scientists are used to having to defend what they do. They have become used to the fact that they are under constant scrutiny; some, such as climate scientists, find themselves under more scrutiny than others, for various political and social reasons. They also have become used to having to ‘measure’ things they took for granted in the past, such as doing science ‘in the public interest’ or doing science ‘for the public good’. They also know very well that they are working within a flawed system of incentives and have started to do something about that.

Threats to doing science as a way of life have been accumulating, but now they are beginning to hit home in ways not seen and experienced before.

If funding is cut for, say, environmental science looking into air or water pollution, this will have direct impacts on people’s lives. Again ‘people’ include scientists (they too drink water and breathe air!). We hear a lot about ‘science’, but much less about ‘scientists’, the people who do science. Scientists will lose funding; scientists will lose jobs; this will lead to a gradual erosion of expertise and evidence about, say, air pollution or water pollution. This also means a loss of opportunity for scientists to work in the public interest and for the public good. All this is poses threats to fundamental social, human and cultural values that define science, society and the complex relations between the two.

I therefore really liked the title that Ed Yong chose for his New Atlantic article: “What Exactly Are People Marching for When They March for Science?” It focuses on people, not just ‘science’. As the author of the fantastic book (based on what scientists have found out doing science) I contain Multitudes, Yong points out rightly “’Science’ isn’t a monolithic entity. The term contains multitudes.” (Italics mine) And it is been done by multitudes of scientists and other ‘people’ in multitudes of ways and in multitudes of places and spaces.

Ed Yong goes on to say (on the way signposting some of the values of science in and for society that we might lose): “There’s empiricism itself, and the primacy of evidence in making sense of the world. There’s the scientific method—a system for gathering evidence. There are the various fields and sub-fields in which that method is used. There are the people who deploy it—scientists obviously, but also teachers, journalists, doctors, and more. Given that plurality, I wondered, what exactly are people marching for when they’re marching for science?”

He gathered some information about the multitude of motivations that inspire people to participate in the ‘March for Science’ (and perhaps that’s the wrong title!) “by looking at two sources—the March for Science’s website and its Facebook group—and collating every statement that could be reasonably interpreted as a goal”. He found lots of goals and he also found an inherent tension that, again, has been discussed, especially in the context of climate science and climate science contestation, for about a decade or so, namely that between science and politics.

Science and politics

When we started our Making Science Public programme, there was hope that science-politics relations might be improved by making science more open, by making it more public and more responsible; by clarifying the role of expertise and evidence in policy making; by enhancing relations between scientific advisors and policy makers; and, of course by promoting more democratic participation and deliberation in science and politics. Such issues are now more topical than we ever thought in 2011….

What has this to do with the March for Science? At the moment there are lively discussions about whether a ‘march’ (‘for science’) is the best way of dealing with the political issues in which science and scientists find themselves at this crucial historical moment. This is a good thing in my view. Whatever the march may or may not achieve and however much some people may love it or hate it, just calling for such a march has made the complex issues and the tensions surrounding science and politics more public and open to participation and to deliberation.

Towards the end of his article, Ed Yong quotes Beka Economopoulos, an activist and co-founder of a mobile natural history museum who said something about the March for Science that makes a lot of sense to me: “I think it’s a coming out party for a movement of engaged scientists and supporters, who are more outspoken about the ways in which science can serve the public good and the need to protect such science.” People are part of that picture. Many have an interest in science as a public good. Some, possibly many, will be marching to protect that public good.

PS I have just seen on twitter that  is planning to collect of the , its organizers, participants, critics and others involved. . If you are going to , or a satellite march, and are willing to be interviewed, please DM him.

Image: Women’s march on Versailles, 1789

Posted in Politicspublic engagement with sciencepublic participationpublic serviceScienceScience and Governmentscience and politicsScience CommunicationUnited States of America