Opinion: Sometimes, Scientists Must March

Lessons learned from the “Death of Evidence” demonstration in Canada

Feb 13, 2017
Katie Gibbs, Alana Westwood, Kathleen Walsh

Only days after inauguration, the Trump administration provoked anxiety among scientists in the U.S. and around the world. And scientists’ continuing concerns are well founded: media blackouts were reportedly installed at several federal agencies; grants were frozen at the Environmental Protection Agency; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cancelled a climate and health conference. The administration has already shown a disregard for evidence, choosing “alternative facts” instead. 

The response from the global scientific community was swift. Within days, word of a March for Science in Washington, DC, began to spread. The idea gained momentum quickly, garnering international media attention and hundreds of thousands of followers on social media. The march has now been set for Earth Day—April 22—and planned satellite marches are springing up across the U.S., in many Canadian cities, and elsewhere.

Over the last several weeks, a number of opinion articles have come out against the march. These pieces retread the same arguments: critics have expressed concern that demonstrations will only politicize science, and have questioned the ability of a march to enable real change. 

See “Will a March Help Science?

See “Opinion: Should Scientists Engage in Activism?

From the outset, it’s impossible to know for sure what the long-term outcomes of the March for Science will be. But as scientists, we can look to the data and past experiences for clues. Although there is only one recent data point for marching on science, it is a very pertinent one: the 2012 Death of Evidence rally in Canada, which drew some 2,000 researchers to demonstrate for transparent, evidence-based policy. It quickly became clear that Canada’s scientific community had an appetite for advocacy.

Scientists in Canada faced our own dark age of anti-science politics under the Harper government. For a decade, scientists were muzzled, funding and research capacity was cut, and policy decisions were made in clear opposition of evidence. In response, scientists organized and spoke out. The first large, visible action of resistance came in the summer of 2012. We donned our lab coats and marched through our capital city in a mock funeral procession, commemorating the “Death of Evidence.” It was one of the largest science demonstrations in Canadian history. The unofficial coalition of academics and citizens who decided to take on this work went on to found Evidence for Democracy—a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization supporting evidence-based policy, with which we are affiliated.

In the run-up to the rally, we heard many of the same concerns from some in the scientific community regarding credibility and practicality. Their concerns proved to be unfounded. The rally didn’t hurt the credibility of those who participated, and it didn’t lead to more polarization. Rather, our march started a movement that we believe led to concrete, positive changes for science in Canada: including increased engagement of scientists in the public sphere, and improvements in science policy. This highly visible movement—and the educational events, training sessions, debates, campaigns, and additional marches that followed—helped put science front and center in the 2015 Canadian election. Now, Canada has a government that supports science. Our government scientists have been unmuzzled, our census reinstated, and—very shortly—we will a new national science advisor. Although correlation does not imply causation, it is quite reasonable to conclude that these changes would not have happened if scientists had kept quiet and stayed home.

Among those criticizing the impending US march, many have called instead for increased communication. Absolutely, more communication is needed. Combating misinformation means training scientists to share their research—and explain its relevance—with the media, citizens, and politicians alike. For the next four years and beyond, we need to improve how we tell stories of why research matters, how science has made all of our lives better.

Yet, communicating the importance of science isn’t enough. When faced with governments that muzzle scientists, disseminate misinformation, and deny the facts, we must get out of our comfort zones. We must march. If we don’t stand up for science, who will? 

Katie Gibbs, Alana Westwood, and Kathleen Walsh all work with Evidence for Democracy, which is headquartered in Ottawa. “Evidence for Democracy (E4D) is the leading fact-driven, non-partisan, not-for-profit organization promoting the transparent use of evidence in government decision-making in Canada.” Westwood is also a conservation biologist and instructor at Dalhousie University.