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On eve of science march, planners look ahead

This past January, just days after millions of people marched on behalf of women—and in reaction to the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump—Caroline Weinberg, a health writer and educator in New York City, began dreaming of a similar march on behalf of science. “Seems like it would be pretty easy” to organize, she texted a friend. “Just reach out to academics at local universities.”

Now, on the eve of the 22 April March for Science in Washington, D.C., and some 400 sister marches around the world, Weinberg concedes that organizing the sprawling event has been anything but easy. Soon after that text, Weinberg and two other march enthusiasts she met online found themselves leading a global movement that has attracted millions of followers, with goals that include dramatizing concerns that political leaders are ignoring scientific evidence and demonstrating broad support for science. To turn that vision into reality, the trio has recruited scores of volunteer coordinators, negotiated partnerships with dozens of science groups, and raised some $1 million to pay for everything from security to portable toilets.

“Every step of the way has been completely terrifying,” Weinberg says. “‘Seems like it would be pretty easy’ will be on my tombstone,” she jokes.

March organizers admit they don’t know what they’ll find at the end of their exhausting sprint. They are uncertain of how many marchers will appear, and how the demonstrations will be received. But they also are already looking past 22 April. They see march day as a beginning, not an end, as March for Science tries to pivot from being an event organizer to becoming a lasting force for science advocacy.

“We’re building an organization that is going to last beyond the march,” says Jonathan Berman, a march co-chair and a postdoctoral fellow studying hypertension at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. The goal, he says, is to create a group that can help science advocates develop the organizing and lobbying skills they need “to make their concerns heard” and “have an effect on politics.”

March organizers kept that long-term goal in mind as they shaped the Washington, D.C., event. They chose speakers who they believed would highlight the value of a vibrant and diverse scientific community. Lydia Villa-Komaroff, a Mexican-American biologist who helped demonstrate how bacteria could make insulin, will speak to the role of basic research in producing valuable discoveries. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician who helped expose dangerous lead levels in Flint, Michigan’s drinking water, symbolizes the value of science-informed advocacy. TV personality Bill Nye has become an icon of creative efforts to get young people excited about science. March planners also arranged teach-ins, including one on the science of superheroes, with the goal of getting march attendees excited about reaching out to their own communities upon returning home. And 22 April will kick off a “week of science action,” during which organizers will encourage marchers everywhere to maintain the momentum through small actions, such as posting social media messages on specific themes.

At the same time, the organizers steered clear of politicians, desiring a nonpartisan atmosphere. The goal was to create “as big of a tent” as possible, says anthropologist Valorie Aquino, the third march co-chair and a Ph.D. student at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

March organizers are hoping for a large turnout on 22 April, but—like any good scientist—they say further evaluation will be necessary before they can draw conclusions about the event’s success. Increased advocacy from the scientific community and more science-based evidence in policy decisions could take years to come about, they concede.

But they aren’t waiting long to take their next step. The day after the march, organizers plan to meet in Washington, D.C., with partners to discuss how March for Science can continue. Those discussions are likely to revisit many of the logistical challenges and politically sensitive issues that the group confronted over the past few months.

Raising money, for instance, will remain a key challenge. Weinberg has dipped into her savings in order to work on the march full time. Aquino, who suspended her research to focus on the event, has been supporting herself by working as an online teaching assistant. Both would like to continue their science advocacy work through the March for Science organization. Weinberg hopes there will be just enough money leftover from march fundraising to help jump-start the group’s next steps. But funds have mostly come from individual donations and merchandise sales, which she fears will drop off after the march. (Fundraising has been complicated, she says, by vendors selling knockoff March for Science swag while falsely claiming to send proceeds to the organization.)

The group will also have to decide how it will advocate for science without becoming too entangled in partisan politics. March critics have already noted that politically conservative scientists might not feel welcome in a group that tends to lean liberal. And others have hotly debated how the march has handled diversity issues. The organizers say that, more than aiming to advocate for a single issue, candidate, or party, they want to catalyze a cultural shift, erasing what they say many scientists see as an uncrossable line between science and advocacy. “I want scientists to get out of their comfort zone a little bit, to not leave data at someone's doorstep and walk away,” Aquino says.

March organizers know they’re not the first to urge scientists to speak out—march partners AAAS (publisher of ScienceInsider), the Union of Concerned Scientists, and other groups have long pursued similar goals. But they note the march has roused hundreds of thousands of grassroots advocates, including nonscientists, and say that failing to follow up with them would be a lost opportunity.

“If this whole thing ended after April 22,” says Weinberg, “I would consider the last two-and-a-half months of my life kind of wasted.”