The scientists not marching for science are giving up on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

It’s time.
It’s time.
Image: AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy
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On Apr. 22, the world is likely to see the greatest-ever gathering of people fighting for science. It began as a reaction to US president Donald Trump’s disregard for facts, but quickly snowballed into a movement across the globe—in more than 600 places—that wants to celebrate the role science plays in everyday life.

Anybody who believes that science matters is welcome to join the march, but it is the scientists among them who will be in the spotlight. As a former scientist myself, who has worked with many other researchers, I understand that this is well outside the comfort zone of many scientists. This is especially true because the march has attracted controversy.

The lead organizers, who announced the march in Washington, DC only days after the Trump inauguration, have tried very hard to distance themselves from politics. They insist the march is non-partisan. Their official mission is that the march “champions robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity.”

Others have argued—and rightly so—that trying to separate politics from any public march is a fraught exercise. Instead, it is through engagement with those beyond the scientific community that scientists will best be able to make the case for the work they do without regard to the politics. That’s why the scientists not attending the march tomorrow will be throwing away a golden opportunity.

For centuries, science was a hobby for the rich. Though that phase gave us the enlightenment, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the benefits of the great leaps in knowledge began to trickle down in a significant way (think steam engines and telegraph). And even after that process began, it took another century before being able to work in science became accessible to those beyond the 1%. Without that transformation, I and many others would never have had the opportunity to do things  like earn a PhD in chemistry from one of the best universities in the world.

I was born to a middle-class family in a small town in India. None in my immediate family had studied beyond a master’s degree, and none had ever done any research. But, with the help of government funding and philanthropy, I was able to move from Nashik to Oxford and spend three years in a world-class laboratory trying to take human knowledge just that little bit further.

Though I’ve not (yet) made a world-changing contribution, many immigrants who science embraced with open arms—famously Albert Einstein and Nikola Tesla—did just that. The barriers of race and gender still exist, but scientists are trained to argue and dissent. That training has naturally forced the community to face up to the ills and become more open. It’s this openness that scientists must shout about when they are on the streets.

You’ve probably heard of complaints about boffins in the ivory tower spending millions on wasteful endeavors. If you’re a researcher—or the type of person who believes in the value of research—you may have brushed off the complaints as ignorance, or shouted into a pillow about how science has improved nearly everyone in the world’s life and saved countless others  through antibiotics, vaccines, and electricity. That, however, doesn’t make the complaints go away. Instead, the march gives you a chance re-make the case for taxpayer-funded research.

If nothing else, the march is an opportunity to start a conversation. Maybe you’re able to bring your kid to the march and teach her about protests. Maybe you bump into your neighbor with the protest sign in hand and it gives you a chance to explain why it’s worth your time to go on the streets. Maybe a stranger unaware of the march reaches out to ask about the fuss and you’re able to give him a new insight into why separating politics and science is hard. You may not like the reason why the stereotype for a scientist is a nerdy, shy person in a lab coat, but the only way to overcome it is to let them see you, dear scientists, who likely doesn’t fit that stereotype.

The Women’s March was born out of opposition to Trump’s reprehensible views, but it went on to become something that highlighted much bigger issues. The March for Science could do the same. Would you feel ashamed standing up for women’s right to a life of dignity and equality just because someone might think you are being “political?” If not, there’s no reason you should feel uncomfortable professing the values of science—fairness, integrity, openness, and a respect for facts. These are redeeming virtues in a world that is  increasingly turning inwards, and worth taking to the street for.