Almost immediately after the inauguration of Donald Trump, scientists and science-affiliated groups started talking about a March for Science. This weekend, it’s finally happening—and in aggregate, Saturday’s events may be the largest demonstration of scientists ever.
Around the same time the central march in Washington, DC started coming together, people all over the country started planning their own local events, so-called satellite marches. As of now, more than 600 are scheduled all over the world, including in Memphis, Tennessee.
An activist named Nour Hantouli, part of the Memphis Feminist Collective, got involved early—along with a dozen people who had long worked in Memphis on movements like Black Lives Matter. Memphis has a storied history in political activism; it’s the place where Ida B. Wells documented and protested lynching in the US. Local activists wanted to teach the organizing scientists about their work’s logistics and philosophy.
In late March, one of the activists, Sydney Bryant, did an interview with The Scientist. “There have been scientists from different areas in Memphis that really want to help, but they don’t know anything about activism,” she said. “So we are trying to teach them . . . in a way that will benefit us both.”
It didn’t go over well. Several scientists wrote in to The Scientist expressing their indignation. “It is unfortunate,” one wrote, “that the interviewee is not someone who actually represents the scientific community of Memphis or the spirit with which the March for Science Memphis was originally conceived.” At the same time, the organizers were having internal difficulties with the leadership of their group, with the scientists wanting to assume all leadership positions, Hantouli says.
The tension in Memphis parallels debates in the larger scientific community over the March for Science, and the relationship between science and politics. After many revisions of its mission statement, the national March for Science now explicitly describes itself as a political movement—and more than that, that it’s officially about diversity in science. But some scientists in Memphis, along with many others nationwide, want to keep the movement’s focus on improving public understanding of science and underlining the importance of funding for research. They wanted to avoid associations with a political movement—and even more emphatically, partisan politics.
On one side are scientists who value their work for its purity, its separation from politics—illusory though that may seem under an administration that seeks to downsize the EPA, cut the NIH budget, and deny climate change. On the other side are scientists who’ve felt the impact of the field’s politics for years. People of color, women, the disabled, immigrants, gay people—they’re all clamoring for scientists to confront science’s biases and improve instead of celebrating its successes on the Washington Mall.
What Happened in Memphis?
The last straw in Memphis, according to Hantouli, was a discussion about where to end the march. One choice, which she says was proposed by scientists—and they dispute this—was Health Sciences Park, home to a statue and tomb of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general who may have been the first Grand Wizard of the KKK.
But the split was about much more than a statue in a park, of course. “Originally we all tried to organize things together, but there were some differences on how we were going to center on science and its positive aspects,” says Husni Elbahesh, a virologist who joined the team because he felt strongly about preserving funding for scientific research.
The tensions between the groups didn’t end after they separated. Both groups agree that aggressively partisan activity is the best way to weaken the message of the March for Science. But they disagree on what that means. “Science is supposed to be the search for empirical truth,” says philosopher Heather Douglas, a philosopher at University of Waterloo in Canada. “What could possibly be political about that?”
The activists’ response: Well, pretty much everything. “Science of course doesn’t search for just any old truth,” says Douglas. “It searches for particular truths, and what strikes scientists as being interesting at any given time is of course shaped by the societal context.” Science, as soon as it’s practiced by people—with their own backgrounds, personal interests, and parties—is political. And in order for a march for science to be effective, it needs to address who gets to be a scientist and who science serves. Waffling on how much to engage with these social issues has led to a wide-ranging, ill-defined mission statement, and caused several members of the central planning committee to leave.
In Memphis, the breakaway scientists contacted the national March organizers and accused Hantouli’s group of partisan activities—like supporting social justice for people of color, the disabled, and trans people.
Both groups are “official satellite marches.” Elbahesh’s rally is supposed to be a safer bet for scientists, he says. “Some scientists view this as a little bit too much engagement to begin with, so we wanted to provide an alternative, since ours is organized by scientists,” he says. (The March for Science Memphis team also has scientists.)
Hantouli’s group released a statement on Facebook reiterating that they aren’t partisan, but added that “supporting marginalized communities and members of STEM is not mutually exclusive from supporting science, and framing it that way is very dangerous to the success of our movement.” Participants will be marching to historically black college LeMoyne-Owens, where a female scientist, a black science activist, and a Muslim immigrant scientist will speak. The march is blind- and deaf-accessible, and they’re using Facebook Live to accommodate people with mental illness who prefer to avoid mass events. This week, they’re walking the route to make sure it’s wheelchair accessible.
Both groups feel that their work isn’t done—and with the perception that science is under attack in the US, they wish they could show a united front. But “that in itself is a false picture of science, because we are not united,” says Zuleyka Zevallos, a sociologist at Swinburne University in Australia who has studied the online reaction to the March for Science’s shifting messaging. Saturday’s marches, rallies, and other events around the world will surely pull some science supporters together. But they’re just as likely to highlight the clash over science’s priorities. Should the science community focus on fighting back against a hostile administration? Or on improving itself from within?
The national March for Science is preparing to release its political platform next week—after the march is over.