Will Scientists Gear Up for Activism in the Age of Trump?

Diego Diaz/Icon Sportswire via AP Images

Activists at the March for Science on April 14, 2018, in downtown Portland, Oregon

The 2017 March for Science was an innovative attempt to mobilize scientists to engage in public protest. Since Donald Trump’s inauguration, millions of people have participated in numerous marches and rallies across the United States in resistance to his administration and its policies. But the March for Science differed from the other mass marches in one important way: The major organizers, including groups such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Union of Concerned Scientists, framed the event as a protest by “scientists and science supporters, teachers and parents, global citizens, and policymakers.”  

In other words, its core participants were specific professional groups (scientists, teachers, policymakers), rather than more identity-focused groups, such as women or African Americans. 

The march was doubly contentious because participants were called on to protest the current political regime and scientists were asked to set aside well-established professional norms of apolitical behavior and “get out of the labs and into the streets.” 

Did it work? 

The numbers say yes, but understanding the effects of this activism is complicated. The April march in Washington, D.C., attracted an estimated 100,000 people despite cold and rainy weather. Other science activists marched in more than 600 satellite marches around the country and the world on the same day.

Through social media, the news media, and more traditional scientific outlets like Science Magazine, the participants raised awareness about the public value of scientific research and education. Paradoxically, some of these efforts ended up with activists engaging in political protests, demanding the insulation of science from political attack. 

Since the 2017 march, the organizers have continued recruiting scientists and building the movement, with events like the Science, Government, Institutions and Society (SIGNS) Summit, a meeting for organizers of the Science March and other science activists to brainstorm next steps.

Other organizations have also sprouted: 314 Action, for example, wants people to “join the pro-science Resistance” and aims to be “the Emily’s List for scientists” by recruiting and supporting STEM-educated candidates to run for political office. Another group, Environmental Data Governance Initiative (EDGI), works to preserve federal data and monitor changes at federal environmental agencies. Even Science for the People, which was formed in the late 1960s, has recently reorganized, establishing ten new chapters in the past year.

Scientists are definitely mobilizing. But does it really matter? 

Looking specifically at the most educated people in the crowd—the scientistswe can learn a lot more about what made the March for Science unique and why marching scientists may make a political difference. As part of a long-term research project on American protest, we worked with a team that included University Maryland students to survey a random sample of people on electronic tablets in the pouring rain on the National Mall during the March for Science. 

The team collected information about the mobilization, demographics, and civic and political engagement from more than 200 individuals at the event: None of the scientists surveyed voted for Trump or any of the third-party candidates; 95 percent of the 39 scientists surveyed cast a ballot for Hillary Clinton. Among the other march participants, 85 percent of the 149 non-scientists voted for Clinton; 7 percent (11 people) voted for a third-party candidate; and 3 percent (5 people) voted for Trump. 

One in five march attendees (21 percent) reported holding the highest degree in their fields (JD, PhD, or MD). The march mobilized the highest percentage of doctors, lawyers, and scientists of all of the large-scale protests in D.C. since 2017. Only 13 percent of People’s Climate March (April 2017) participants held professional degrees; at the Women’s March (January 2017), the figure was 10 percent; and at the March for Our Lives (March 2018) the figure was 9 percent. 

Before the march, scientists were much less civically engaged than their fellow participants. They were far less likely to have attended a town hall meeting, to be engaged in political discussions online, to have collected money or signatures for a candidate or ballot question, or to have participated in civil disobedience during the past year. Although the vast majority of scientists exhibited highly uniform voting behavior, their levels of civic and political engagement beyond voting were less robust than other co-marchers. 

When asked about the threats to science-based public policy, scientists expressed far more concern than the other marchers (95 percent  to 75 percent). They were also much more concerned about the impacts of increasing public mistrust in science (88 percent to 76 percent). More than other marchers, they expressed a stronger belief  that science is under direct attack. In other words, scientists and the other highly educated participants viewed marching as a means to defend a specific set of professional interests in the face of intensifying threats from the Trump administration. 

We also collected information about March for Science participants’ involvement in the organizations that were coordinating the march, which included a number of science-focused professional and advocacy organizations. Highly educated marchers reported being much more likely to have mobilized through their organizational networks than other participants. In fact, 40 percent of the highly educated marchers belonged to one of the groups, such as the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, that organized the March for Science. A smaller percentage of other marchers had ties to the march organizers (15 percent). 

What do these numbers mean for science activism in the Trump era? The potential for scientists to become a meaningful force in the resistance is real, but mobilizing scientists is no simple task. The characteristics that make scientists valuable political resources in some ways makes them more difficult to mobilize. 

Although mobilized scientists vote, they are not as engaged in civic activities beyond voting and their energies are narrowly funneled into directions that match their professions that may prove difficult to expand beyond science-related concerns. At the same time, one of our key findings is that mobilized scientists have deeper connections to science organizations that engage in political advocacy than other marchers.  

These potential science activists are also deeply connected to their professional organizations and groups associated with their fields. But any group that wants to turn scientists into a significant political force must understand that this constituency’s political interests are narrower and their experience with politics is relatively limited, which means that organizers who want to reach them must plan outreach strategies accordingly. Mobilization efforts also should expand beyond the large, national science organizations to include smaller professional groups and associations. 

As the Trump administration continues to cut federal support for research and limit the role of science in the federal policymaking process, an unparalleled number of scientists are running for elected office—and winning. The March for Science demonstrates the power of getting scientists out of their labs. Keeping them engaged in politics can only heighten their influence on issues from climate change to space exploration and beyond.

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