Advocates fan out in global show of support for science
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WASHINGTON — The world saw brain power take a different form Saturday.
From the Washington Monument to Germany’s Brandenburg Gate and even to Greenland, scientists, students and research advocates rallied on an often soggy Earth Day, conveying a global message about scientific freedom without political interference, the need for adequate spending for future breakthroughs and just the general value of scientific pursuits.
“We didn’t choose to be in this battle, but it has come to the point where we have to fight because the stakes are too great,” climate scientist Michael Mann said at the Washington D.C. march. Mann regularly clashes with politicians.
Mann said that like other scientists, he would rather be in his lab, the field or teaching students. But driving his advocacy are officials who deny his research that shows rising global temperatures.
Denis Hayes, who co-organized the first Earth Day 47 years ago, said the crowd he saw from the speaker’s platform down the street from the White House was energized and “magical” in a rare way, similar to what he saw in the first Earth Day.
“For this kind of weather this is an amazing crowd. You’re not out there today unless you really care,” Hayes said.
President Donald Trump, in an Earth Day statement hours after the marches kicked off, said that “rigorous science depends not on ideology, but on a spirit of honest inquiry and robust debate.”
His administration, he said, is “committed to keeping our air and water clean, to preserving our forests, lakes and open spaces and to protecting endangered species” — but not, he added, in a way that harms “working families.” The government, he said, is “reducing unnecessary burdens on American workers and American companies, while being mindful that our actions must also protect the environment.”
Some in the Washington crowd were skeptical.
The gathering that drew thousands to the National Mall despite intermittent rain. It was the first protest for Jeannette Villabon and her son Nikko Chey of Stanhope, New Jersey. So Villabon went all out, donning a Tyrannosaurus rex costume and holding a sign that said: “Hey tiny hands fund EPA study. Quit being cretaceous.”
Trump’s “archaic thinking is going to ruin us all,” Villabon said.
Other signs were only slightly less pointed, such as “edit genes not the truth,” “data not dogma” and “global warming is real. Trump is the hoax.”
Ice photographer and filmmaker James Balog, who says he was watched trillions of tons of ice melt, told the Washington crowd that talking about the science of climate change in the face of the Trump administration and climate change deniers is “a battle between objective reality and ideological fiction.”
In Gainesville, Florida, more than 1,000 people stretched through the city’s streets.
“Most people don’t know how much funding for the sciences supports them in their lives every day. Every medical breakthrough, their food, clothing, our cellphones, our computers, all that is science-based,” said Pati Vitt, a plant scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden. “So if we stop funding scientific discoveries now, in 10 years, whatever we might have had won’t be, we just won’t have it.”
Lara Stephens-Brown, a graduate student studying veterinary medicine at the University of Minnesota, joined thousands marching in St. Paul.
“Science is not a partisan issue,” she said. “Science is for everyone, and should be supported by everyone in our government.”
At the event in Nashville, Tennessee, where marchers shouted “science, not silence,” lawyer Jatin Shah brought his sons, a 5-year-old who wants to be a dentist and 6-year-old who plans to be a doctor. Shah worries about the boys’ futures if money is cut for the sciences.
“I fear that we’re not going to have the planet that you and I grew up on unless we find new ways to make this earth as livable as possible for as long as we can,” Shah said. “And we’re not going to have as intellectual a society as we should. We need as many people as possible to be educated in the sciences.”
People there carried signs that said “there is no planet B,” ”make America think again” and “climate change is real, ask any polar bear.”
Germany’s foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, has endorsed March for Science events across Germany, saying that “free research and teaching are the supporting pillars of an open and modern society.”
Marchers in Geneva held signs that said, “Science — A Candle in the Dark” and “Science is the Answer.” In Berlin, several thousand people participated in a march from one of the city’s universities to the landmark Brandenburg Gate. “‘We need to make more of our decisions based on facts again and less on emotions,” said Meike Weltin, a doctorate student at an environmental institute near the capital.
“I think that politics need to listen to sciences.”
In London, physicists, astronomers, biologists and celebrities gathered for a march past the city’s most celebrated research institutions. Supporters carried signs showing images of a double helix and chemical symbols. In Spain, hundreds assembled in Madrid, Barcelona and Seville.
Organizers portrayed the march as political but not partisan, promoting the understanding of science as well as defending it from various attacks, including proposed U.S. government budget cuts under Trump, such as a 20 percent slice of the National Institute of Health.
Hundreds turned out in light rain for a pro-science rally on the Vermont statehouse lawn in Montpelier. One of the speakers, Rose Paul, director of conservation science for The Nature Conservancy of Vermont, told the crowd that “Science is not a partisan issue.” She said “climate change is happening” and scientists are needed to help understand how shifting weather patterns are affecting the world.
Trump’s statement Saturday said his administration was “committed to advancing scientific research that leads to a better understanding of our environment and of environmental risks.”
Kathryn Oakes Hall pinned a sign to the back of her T-shirt as she made her way to the march in Santa Fe, New Mexico: “Nine months pregnant, so mad I’m here,” it said.
“I’d rather be sitting on the couch,” she said.
But she marched anyway because she worried about her baby’s future in a world that seems to consider science disposable. Her husband is an engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory, she studied anthropology — and she has a dog named Rocket.
So they joined thousands marching in Santa Fe, many of whom stopped her to remark on her pregnancy, with a mix of administration and concern.
She wore a white T-shirt, with a drawing of the earth stretched over her belly, and carried a sign: “Evidence-based policy and not policy-based evidence.”
The rallies set for more than 500 cities were putting scientists, who generally shy away from advocacy and whose work depends on objective experimentation, into a more public position.
Scientists said they were anxious about political and public rejection of established science such as climate change and the safety of vaccine immunizations.
“Scientists find it appalling that evidence has been crowded out by ideological assertions,” said Rush Holt, a former physicist and Democratic congressman who runs the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “It is not just about Donald Trump, but there is also no question that marchers are saying ‘when the shoe fits.”
Judy Twigg, a public health professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, was aiming one of her signs at the president. The sign showed the periodic table of chemical elements and said: “You’re out of your element Donny (Trump).” For Twigg, who was wearing a T-shirt that said “Science is not a liberal conspiracy,” research is a matter of life and death on issues such as polio and child mortality.
Despite saying the march was not partisan, Holt acknowledged it was only dreamed up at the Women’s March on Washington, a day after Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration.
“It’s not about the current administration. The truth is we should have been marching for science 30 years ago, 20 years, 10 years ago,” said co-organizer and public health researcher Caroline Weinberg. “The current (political) situation took us from kind of ignoring science to blatantly attacking it. And that seems to be galvanizing people in a way it never has before. … It’s just sort of relentless attacks on science.”
“The scientific method was developed to be nonpartisan and objective,” Weinberg said. “It should be embraced by both parties.”
Associated Press writer Markus Schreiber in Berlin contributed to this report.