A rain-soaked participant in the March for Science fills out a paper survey on the National Mall.

Jeffrey Mervis

Rain doesn’t stop researchers from doing science at the march

It was half past noon when sociologist Dana Fisher of the University of Maryland in College Park pulled her survey team from the National Mall in Washington, D.C. A light but steady morning shower had turned into a downpour, and Fisher was worried that the 17 tablet computers her volunteers had used all morning to survey the crowd at Saturday’s March for Science would soon freeze up. The 200 responses they had collected so far were only two-thirds of her goal, but she decided the risk was too great to push on.

“If they break, we lose all the data,” Fisher said. “So I told them to pack up. It’s not ideal, but I’ve used data sets that were even smaller.”

Fisher was leading one of four research teams who battled the chilly, driving rain to sample participants at the biggest-ever rally for science. The scientists had lots of questions—Who are you? Why did you come? What are your politics? What do you hope to accomplish?—among others. And their pursuit of answers inadvertently highlighted one of the central messages of the march: Government policies should be based on data, not opinion, and science has evolved an exquisitely tuned approach to collecting and analyzing those data.

Or as one popular sign put it: “What do we want? Evidence-based science. When do we want it? After peer review.”

A portrait of the marchers

Fisher began studying protests and climate politics more than a decade ago and has surveyed in all kinds of weather. So she wasn’t fazed by what she labels a “terribly horrible day.” After blow-drying the tablets back to life over the weekend, Fisher has begun to analyze the responses to her two-page survey on what motivates marchers to protest.

As with her colleagues, Fisher’s payoff will come through peer-reviewed publications. But her preliminary results offer a glimpse of the profile of a science marcher.

Her data reveal, for example, that 98% of the marchers were motivated by the 2016 U.S. election results, in other words, Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton. She also found that only 2.6% voted for Trump, versus 84% for Clinton. Although some 44% of participants had attended the 21 January Women’s March on Washington, 30% were novice protesters.

Sociologist Dana Fisher (right) and her team get their tablets at a downtown Dunkin’ Donuts.

Jeffrey Mervis

According to her survey, the crowd was 54% female, with an average age of 40. And 80%—155 of 195 who answered that question—were white. (No other racial group reached double digits, in fact, and exactly one black person completed the survey.)

Political scientist Michael Heaney of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, another researcher well-steeped in protest movements, deployed a six-page survey designed to gauge the political identities of the marchers. And his old-fashioned technology—a paper survey attached to a clipboard—weathered the storm surprising well, as his 21-person team came back with 447 usable responses.

In typically scholarly understatement, Heaney says that the crowd generated “a severe shortage of Republican-identified participants.” To be precise, his survey found that only 2% of the sample used the word “Republican” to identify their political leanings. That matches the percentage of self-identified Republicans who attended the Women’s March, held the day after Trump’s presidential inauguration in open protest of his election.

At the same time, Heaney notes that the March for Science had significantly fewer self-avowed “strongly Democratic” participants than the Women’s March, by a margin of 46% to 50%. Similarly, only 6% of the crowd hailed from the far left of the political spectrum (e.g. progressives and socialists), compared with 10% at the Women’s March.

A third researcher, environmental scientist Sonja Klinsky of Arizona State University in Tempe, led a 16-person team that conducted a two-tiered survey on Saturday. And unlike Heaney and Fisher, whose teams limited their efforts to the 4-hour rally on the mall that preceded the march, Klinsky’s team of student volunteers plunged into the march itself, surveying participants as they walked 15 blocks down Constitution Avenue to the U.S. Capitol.

Klinsky targeted the mobile protesters because she felt that those who are physically marching are demonstrating an additional commitment to the cause. “Some people are happy to listen to speakers but are not comfortable showing that level of activity. But that’s who we wanted to survey,” she says. Bucking the conventional wisdom that those protesters will be too busy marching to answer a survey, Klinsky says, “We got 150 on-the-spot interviews, which is a pretty reasonable number.” No data are yet available.

Though half the team used their smartphones to record answers to up to 32 questions, the other half passed out cards with instruction on how to access the questionnaire online. Klinsky hopes for a 10% response rate to the 1200 cards that were distributed, bringing the total sample size to between 250 and 300.

The rain foiled Klinsky’s plans to write down answers to one open-ended question on her survey, turning her notebook into a wet pulp. But her students were more resourceful—and adept at using current technology. “They figured out that they could use the dictation feature of their smartphones,” she says. “So they simply repeated the answer and recorded it. I wasn’t as savvy.”

Olivia Carlton

Analysis is also pending from a fourth study, designed by political scientist Michael Xenos of the University of Wisconsin in Madison to measure scientific norms. Graduate student April Eichmeier led a four-member team that recorded the answers of 175 Washington, D.C., marchers to a short questionnaire.

The rain soaked their badger-festooned ponchos but otherwise failed to knock them off stride. “Knock on wood, I’m delighted by the way things went,” Eichmeier says. Data are also pending from a survey of 100 participants from the march in Madison, one of hundreds of sister marches across the country and around the world.

Given the march’s focus, it’s not surprising that response rates to the surveys soared to record levels. “We got only seven rejections out of 150 surveys,” Klinsky marvels. “That’s incredible, given the pouring rain and the fact that they were marching as we were asking them to talk with us.”

Fisher reports a similarly robust 94% response rate in collecting 212 surveys. (Technical glitches caused by the heavy rains knocked out 13 responses.) Heaney experienced the most rejections, representing 59 refusals in addition to the 447 forms his team returned. But he’s not complaining. “That gives me a response rate 88%, which is very high in comparison to surveys that I have conducted at other events,” he says.

Looking for the March for America

Heaney studies how political parties and social movements influence the level of political activism. So for him, the March for Science is just another data point in understanding the interplay of those broader societal forces.

On Saturday Heaney was hoping for a two-fer. He sent six of his volunteers in search of a planned March for America, a pro-Trump rally spawned by the president’s exhortation after the Women’s March for his supporters to take to the streets. Organizers had announced plans for the pro-Trump marches in several cities, with the Washington, D.C., march serving as a counterweight to the March for Science, being celebrated in conjunction with Earth Day. “We are looking forward to a very large turnout,” said their website, which warned that “left Democrats have launched a massive ‘anti-Trump revolution’ … to carry out evil anti-constitutional acts.”

Political scientist Michael Heaney briefs volunteers at a Capitol Hill townhouse. 

Jeffrey Mervis

At a morning briefing in the basement of a Capitol Hill townhouse, Heaney told his team that 400 people had RSVP-ed for the pro-Trump event, which by his rule of thumb meant he expected a turnout of 40. He chose Michael Mrozinski, a veteran of many Heaney surveys and a 2015 graduate of Georgetown University law school, to lead the group. And the soft-spoken academic did his best imitation of a football coach before the big game in an effort to fire them up.

“I have thousands of surveys from marches for liberal causes,” Heaney explained, “but only 300 surveys from conservatives. So if there are only 40 people there, I want you to survey every one of them. And if they seem suspicious, tell them I really care what they think. Because it’s true. Their responses will provide me with really valuable information.”

The event was scheduled to start at 7 a.m. and run all day. So at 10 a.m. Mrozinski led his team through a gentle mist to the east steps of the Capitol, where the rally was supposed to be taking place.

No rally, no protesters. A Capitol police officer told him the rally had been canceled, but invited Mrozinski to see for himself by going to the west side, the site of Trump’s recent inaugural address.

After a few minutes, one of the students spotted a handful of people standing along the perimeter of the Capitol grounds and debating whether to get into a waiting taxi. Motivated by Heaney’s sense of urgency, one of the students walked up to one and invited her to fill out the questionnaire.

The target, a middle-aged white woman wearing a T-shirt proclaiming the “Red, White, and Blue Revolution March,” was happy to engage. But we’re about to leave, she explained. Can we fill them out and send them back? she asked.

The student readily agreed, handing her a legal sized envelope stuffed with copies of the six-page questionnaire. Mrozinski was skeptical that a mail-in form adheres to Heaney’s strict protocol. But he said nothing. And then the would-be marchers slipped away, some by taxi and some on foot.

“We’ll never get them back,” Heaney said later about his research instrument. “But the goal is to minimize conflict, so I don’t mind. And whatever I get back would be useful, even if it’s not enough to make anything from it.”

Live to survey another day

Indeed, resilience could well be the motto for researchers who make their living studying protests, demonstrations, and social movements. Three of the four teams plan to be back in Washington, D.C., this Saturday for the People's Climate March, in which the turnout is expected to dwarf Heaney’s estimate of 100,000 for the March for Science. (Xenos and Eichmeier are passing up the event.)

Heaney is tied up, so Mrozinski will be leading the team. His day job is as a legal assistant for a one-man law office in Washington, D.C., and next week he will be sworn into the Illinois bar. But running surveys also satisfies an itch, he says in a postmarch interview.

“It’s a way to feel the energy of a movement up close, and to witness people acting on their political beliefs,” says Mrozinski, who places himself “on the left side” of the political spectrum. And even though he’s not part of the science community, Mrozinski says the science march sent a tingle down his spine. “It was pretty impressive.”