The March for Science has matured. It may even have outgrown its name.
What began last year as a primal scream against newly elected U.S. President Donald Trump and his policies shows signs of becoming a movement. This year’s second worldwide event, set for 14 April, will likely feature fewer sites and smaller crowds. But the passion remains, transforming a single day of grassroots mass protest into sustained global expressions of support for science.
The overall coordinating body, for example, has evolved and diversified its activities. The 230,000 people on its mailing list now regularly receive requests to sign online petitions to legislators on timely topics; the most recent letter, for example, urges Congress to support research on gun violence. They can also participate in a Vote for Science campaign that highlights a different issue each month—last month agriculture, this month the environment, next month health—and ends with an “ask” of elected officials.
And that’s not all. In July, hundreds of activists will gather in Chicago, Illinois, for a 3-day “summit” to learn community organizing and communications skills, find out about projects in other cities, and recruit volunteers for their own efforts. By the end of May the organization hopes to make its first round of community grants, small awards to seed a handful of grassroots projects being launched by affiliated groups around the world. The initial funding for the grants comes from sales of a book, Science Not Silence: Voices from the March for Science Movement, a keepsake that captures the unprecedented 2017 march in words and pictures.
“Last year the goal was to get people out in support of science,” says Caroline Weinberg, one of the founders of the March for Science and the interim executive director of the overall organization. “This year we trying to put more emphasis on direct advocacy.”
Organizers were stunned by the number of people—more than 1 million—who took to the streets last year in some 450 cities around the world. Nobody expects the total for this year’s events to match that outpouring, and organizers are also avoiding overhyping the flagship march in Washington, D.C.
Even so, more than 200 satellite marches are scheduled, about one-quarter outside the United States. And some countries, notably Mexico, see a march as the best way to rally public support behind a platform to strengthen the scientific community as well as to promote the value of science to society.
Since January 2017, Weinberg has seen March for Science grow from an ad hoc, all-volunteer body to an international organization with a paid staff of 10 scattered around the United States. (AAAS, which publishes Science, is a major sponsor.) Decisions are made collaboratively by the staff and a 10-person board comprised of representatives from satellite groups around the world.
The satellite marches will soon have three options for linking to the mothership, Weinberg says. Being a chapter will reflect the closest ties and provide the greatest access to resources. In contrast, “no contract” status will allow local groups to use the March for Science logo and tap into its resources without requiring adherence to the organization’s policies and practices. The third option, an affiliate, “is a step between the two,” says Weinberg, who lives in New York City. The organization is actively recruiting a permanent head, she adds, but there are no plans to set up a brick-and-mortar headquarters in any location.
Keeping it local
Many satellite organizations have also diversified well beyond their roles in pulling off the inaugural march. Some have tapped into the continued enthusiasm—and surplus contributions—from last year’s march to create nonprofit organizations that have become year-round advocates for science in their communities.
Given a nationwide election in November, many U.S. groups say electing more science-friendly candidates to local, state, and federal offices is a high priority. In San Diego, California, march organizers received “requests from three different groups to set voter registration booths, and we said yes to all of them,” says Navid Zohoury, co–lead organizer of the event and a chemist at Inova Diagnostics, a local biotech company. “Voter registration is playing a much bigger role for us this year.”
But the march is only one of several activities organized by a new nonprofit, San Diego for Science, that evolved from last year’s march. The umbrella organization is also helping out with “Two Scientists Walk Into a Bar®,” in which pairs of scientists spend 2 hours talking with patrons in 25 bars about whatever is on their minds.
“We’re trying to demystify science,” says Zohoury, adding that the button he and others wear for the event—“I’m a scientist. Ask me anything”—is a great conversation starter. Begun 3 years ago by the city’s Fleet Science Center, “Two Scientists” has hopes of becoming a nationwide phenomenon.
In Oklahoma City, science advocates won’t be staging a march on 14 April. Last month, organizers rescheduled their event for the fall in anticipation of a statewide teachers strike that began this week. Now, a Vote for Science fair will be used as “a lead-up to the general election,” with marchers making their presence felt at the state capital, says Jocelyn Barton, a clinical psychologist and president of the local March for Science group. An April march would also have strained the capacity of their more activist members, she admits. The strike “is where all the energy is right now,” she says.
Oklahoma City organizers aren’t alone in having to accommodate external factors. Many sites have shifted from a march to a rally or fairlike event because other events claimed their preferred venue, or to hold down costs. Organizers in Blacksburg, Virginia, initially moved their march up 1 day to avoid clashing with an annual scrimmage by the local university’s football team that draws tens of thousands of spectators as well as a chocolate festival in the city. They eventually reclaimed the 14 April date after conferring with local police.
Satellite organizers also face “march fatigue.” There are now marches “going on practically every weekend, so burnout is definitely a factor,” says Mark Shapiro, a retired physicist at California State University in Fullerton, who this year is reprising his role as lead organizer for the Fullerton march. He notes his march is the only one scheduled this year for Orange County, which hosted four last year.
A complicated global picture
European organizers are also expecting many fewer marches, and some countries won’t be holding any. There’s no shortage of reasons.
“Fake news everywhere, poor budgets, little recognition from the society: It’s all exhausting,” says Léa Verdière, a graduate student in biology at the University of Rennes in France who heads the team planning a 3-hour march there. “Ironically, those are also some of the reasons why we will march.”
In Brussels, the chronic tensions between national and EU scientific organizations foiled plans for a march this year. “We found that many groups had quite different reasons for marching for science, and they weren’t all compatible,” says Charlotte Thorley, a communications specialist and chair of the Science March Brussels organizing team. “Because of where we are, there is also a split between whether we march for Europe or for Belgium, and even within Belgium there are issues with whether we march for Flanders or Wallonia,” a reference to the Dutch- and French-speaking regions of the country.
Randy Caldwell, an organizer in Munich, Germany, says that he and his colleagues opted for an alternative to a march, which they worried might convey a confrontational tone. “It will be more of a pro-fest than a protest,” Caldwell says. The lack of strong support for the event from any of the city’s major universities, he adds, “shows why marching on is so important.”
Australian organizers are expecting about the same number of local marches as last year. “We encourage everyone to come out and show their support,” says Taylor Szyszka, a graduate biochemistry student at the University of Sydney and spokesperson for the March for Science Australia.
Some cities will be seeing their first science marches as organizers welcome more chances to hit the streets. In Mexico, organizers hope that growing enthusiasm—they expect marches in at least 14 cities this year, up from 12 in 2017—will help highlight the problems facing the nation’s academic scientists. “Nothing has changed for good, only bad,” since last year’s event, says Camilo Alcantara Concepción, a biology professor at the University of Guanajuato.
A march in transition
Elsewhere, however, local organizers are sensing that a march may no longer capture all the pro-science messages that they want to express.
“We might be in a transition year,” says Angela Jordan, president of the March for Science organization in Mobile, Alabama. “Last year we marched and heard from speakers,” says Jordan, a research development coordinator at the University of South Alabama there. “This year we want it to be more of a science festival,” with interactive events for the public and posters from winning student science fair projects supplementing the rally.
Thorley notes that “marches need something to rally against,” and that the threat of funding cuts at U.S. science agencies, restrictions to mobility, and attempts to muzzle government scientists offered plenty of tinder to stoke U.S. passions. “In the EU we don’t have that.” Instead of a march or rally, the Brussels group will offer a 3-hour program on the value of evidence and international collaboration.
Not on Earth Day
Another sign of the movement’s growing maturity is its decision not to again hold the march on Earth Day, which this year falls on 22 April. “Earth Day is a very powerful event, and we decided to let it stand on its own,” Weinberg says.
Last year’s national march had a strong environmental flavor, including a keynote address from Dennis Hayes, a lead organizer of the first Earth Day in 1970. This year’s speakers include oceanographer and climate advocate David Titley, dancer and chemist Crystal Dilworth, astrophysicist Hakeem Oluseyi, and health and social policy professor Susan Sorenson.
The March for Science will continue long after the speeches have ended, however. In July, a “March for Science Summit” will be “all about skill-building” for outreach, organizing, and advocacy, says Stephanie Fine Sasse, a staffer based in San Francisco, California, who’s leading the planning. She’d like participants to “leave the meeting with the feeling that they can do something they couldn’t do before.”
Fine Sasse is also coordinating the group’s first wave of community grants, which will total $10,000. She hopes additional fundraising will allow the grants programs to grow.
Whatever the future holds, the national leaders of March for Science think that its name will remain relevant. “Over time it may become a metaphor,” Fine Sasse says. “But for now, the March for Science serves its purpose as a branding tool and a way to gain visibility.”
With reporting by Dennis Normile in Shanghai, China; Lizzie Wade in Mexico City; Catherine Matacic in Washington, D.C.; and Hinnerk Feldwisch-Drentrup in Berlin.
*Correction 4 April, 7 p.m.: This story has been updated to correct the name of the San Diego organization and the nature of the relationship between the satellite groups and the national entity.