Between a research-gutting proposed budget, regulation-slashing executive orders, the appointment of climate change skeptics to head the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy, and bogus claims about vaccines, infectious diseases, and global warming, it’s no secret that President Donald Trump has demonstrated indifference to empirical fact and hostility to the scientific community. This has galvanized many scientists and their supporters.
The most prominent response to the situation will come April 22, as science advocates—including members of major organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science—“walk out of the lab and into the streets” for the first-ever March for Science. Modeled in part on January’s record-breaking Women’s March, organizers have planned a march in Washington and satellite marches in more than 400 cities across six continents. The March for Science is intended to be the largest assemblage of science advocates in history.
Too bad it will likely undermine their cause.
The goals of organizers and participants are varied and worthy, but its critics—most prominently the president himself—will smear the march as simply anti-Trump or anti-Republican partisanship. Whether that’s true is beside the point, and scientists who are keen to participate ought to do so without worrying that they’re sullying their objectivity. The many communities distressed by the actions of this administration should of course exercise their right to protest, and the March for Science may inspire deeper social and political engagement.
But participants must understand that the social and political context in which this march takes place means that it cannot produce the outcomes intended by its organizers. The officially nonpartisan march embodies in miniature the larger challenges that confront the scientific enterprise in its relationship with a society that’s undergoing profound and often distressing changes.
Let’s start by looking at what the largest representative of the scientific community, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, intends by endorsing the march. According to the AAAS’s statement of support, the march will help:
protect the rights of scientists to pursue and communicate their inquiries unimpeded, expand the placement of scientists throughout the government, build public policies upon scientific evidence, and support broad educational efforts to expand public understanding of the scientific process.
In other words, scientists want support for instructing—not involving—the public in the scientific process, a greater influence on policymaking, and no political accountability. That’s a pretty audacious power play, and it’s easy to see how critics might cast the march’s intent as a privileged group seeking to protect and enhance its privileges. The thing is, they wouldn’t be entirely wrong.
As science policy journalist Colin Macilwain points out in Nature, scientists and other members of the technocratic class have generally enjoyed stable, middle-class employment and society’s respect and admiration for most of the past 70 years. They have benefited from scientific and technological progress while mostly remaining insulated from the collateral damage wrought by creative destruction. Federal funding has remained generous under progressive and conservative governments and through economic booms and busts. Scientists possess a variety of relatively comfortable perches from which they can express their ideas and shape public policy.
But there are a lot of people to whom the past seven decades have not been nearly so kind. They’ve struggled to find and keep well-paying jobs in a world in which technological advancement has decoupled economic growth from employment opportunities. They’ve lost a sense of having their voices heard in policymaking, as governance and regulation becomes increasingly complex. To see a select group of people and institutions profit from this complexity has, understandably, bred resentment throughout post-industrial countries.
In this anxious environment, populist politicians prey on citizens’ fears that ill-defined technocrats are focused on job-destroying technologies and business-killing regulations. “I think,” Michael Gove, the pallid British version of Donald Trump, infamously proclaimed on the eve of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, “the people in this country have had enough of experts.”
Of course, this narrative doesn’t reflect the whole picture. These scientists and technologists are also responsible for advances that allow people to live longer, healthier, more comfortable lives. What’s more, this characterization collapses together wildly disparate groups, from the underpaid postdoc leaning over a microscope to the engineer refining the motor skills of an industrial robot. Not all, or even most, of this work has significant political or economic consequences. Unfair as this characterization might be toward well-meaning engineers, researchers, and other experts, it’s not difficult to understand the logic behind it.
Take the advent of driverless cars. Artificial intelligence researchers ensconced in academia and private labs are developing innovations in A.I., technology platforms, and mobility at a breakneck pace. The institutions they work for are exceptionally skilled at rattling off the ways their technologies promise to make transportation safer, more efficient, and environmentally friendly.
They haven’t, however, been good at addressing the ways autonomous vehicles will put millions of people who drive trucks and taxis professionally out of work, destroying one of the few remaining paths to the middle class that’s open to recent immigrants and people without a college education. And despite the revolutionary impact autonomous vehicles will have on everyday life, some companies and researchers have actively circumvented the involvement of the public and regulators in the deployment of this technology.
Driverless car enthusiasts hail the end of searching for parking on crowded city streets. Why shouldn’t a taxi driver in Pittsburgh or a truck driver in Colorado view that pronouncement with the same dismay that a coastal urbanite feels toward President Trump meeting with a professor who idiotically champions climate change as good for plants?
The March for Science will exacerbate rather than address these tensions. Pithy signs like “Make America Smart Again” inadvertently encourage fights over partisanship. This can only distract from the fact that scientific and technological advances are foundational to a political economy that creates some winners and a lot of fulminating losers, and is poised to make a lot more of the latter than the former.
So what should scientists do to safeguard and support their community instead? A good first step would be to acknowledge the scope and depth of the problem. The biggest issue confronting science is not a malicious and incompetent executive, or a research enterprise that might receive less generous funding than it’s enjoyed in the past. The critical challenge—and one that will still be relevant long after Donald Trump has gone back to making poor real estate decisions—is figuring out how scientists can build an enduring relationship with all segments of the American public, so that discounting, defunding, or vilifying scientists’ important work is politically intolerable.
This does not excuse whatever appalling policies Trump will no doubt seek to implement, against which scientists should speak out forcefully in the language of public values like free speech. They did this successfully against requests for the names of Department of Energy employees who attended U.N. climate talks and the clampdown on federal agencies’ external communications. But over the longer term, scientists need to improve their connection to the public and articulate their importance to society in a way that resonates with all Americans.
Scientists and scientific institutions can do this in a number of ways. In an op-ed for the New York Times, coastal geologist Robert Young suggests that “scientists march into local civic groups, churches, schools, county fairs, and, privately, into the offices of elected officials. … Help them understand what we do, and how we do it. Give them your email, or better yet, your phone number.” This would be a great start.
Academia can also challenge the insularity of scientific practice (and not just in the sciences). Instead of an overriding focus on publishing and grants, renewed attention to teaching could train more students in academic rigor and critical appraisal of, among other things, the false claims of a populist demagogue. With research universities scattered throughout the country, academics should be incentivized to improve ties with people who might otherwise consider scientists to be condescending eggheads who only give them bad news about the climate or the economy. University medical centers and military bases provide great models for these types of strong local relationships.
Finally, scientists and technologists must also attend to the social implications of their research. This includes anticipating and mitigating the socioeconomic effects of their innovations (here’s looking at you, Silicon Valley) by allocating resources to address problems they may exacerbate, such as inequality and job loss. The high-level discussion around CRISPR, the revolutionary gene-editing technology, is a good example of both the opportunity for and difficulty of responsible innovation. This process might be made more effective by bringing the public into scientific practice and policymaking using the tools of citizen science and deliberative democracy, rather than simply telling people what scientists are doing or explaining what policymakers have already decided.
Improving the relationship between science and society will require incredibly slow, frustrating, incremental work. But this, rather than a flashy march, is the best way for scientists to generate the public trust needed to support their enterprise. The scientific enterprise will survive the Trump presidency. The open question is whether scientists can help make this anxious era the last of its kind.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.