On 22 April 2017, just 3 months after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, more than 1 million demonstrators around the world took to the streets for an unprecedented event: the March for Science. The event, designed to demonstrate public support for science, was a “lightning in a bottle moment” inspired largely by the antiscience stances taken by the fledgling Trump administration, says Lucky Tran, one of many volunteers with research backgrounds who helped transform the idea, initially floated by a few people on social media, into a high-profile happening complete with sometimes nerdy signs that became internet sensations.
Even before the march ended, however, many organizers, participants, and onlookers wondered: Could the March for Science—which became a nonprofit organization with about 1 million social media followers—translate its early success into sustained influence?
Now, as Trump runs for reelection, the answer is becoming clearer. Although the March for Science has not replicated its initial splash—a 2018 march drew far fewer participants—and has sometimes struggled to define concrete goals, observers say the effort continues to resonate, albeit in ways that can be hard to measure.
The march attracted “a lot of new people … that had never engaged with science policy or science advocacy before” but now see such engagement as important, says Tran, managing director of the March for Science who trained as a molecular biologist and works as a science communicator at Columbia University. And although demonstrators might not have remained directly engaged with the March for Science, many have been “channeled into other events and other organizations that captured their imagination and kept them engaged for longer,” says sociologist Dana Fisher of the University of Maryland, College Park, who studies social movements spawned by opposition to the Trump administration.
The March for Science organization itself has remained small. In the past year, its $300,000 budget has supported a staff that has fluctuated from three to five full-time employees, as well as four to six part-time employees. It also spent $12,000 on advocacy through a platform that makes it easy for followers to contact their elected officials en masse about science-related issues, such as the recent push to persuade municipal, county, and state elected representatives to adopt U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for curbing the COVID-19 pandemic. The group maintains an active email list of about 220,000 and often posts multiple videos a week to its Facebook page, which boasts just shy of 1 million followers.
The group’s current president, Matt Tranchin, has no formal background in research or science, but does bring outreach experience from a previous post, working in the White House Office of Public Engagement under former President Barack Obama. Researchers note Tranchin’s background reflects the broader makeup of the March for Science leadership and following; data from the 2017 march, for example, suggests that only a minority of its followers are practicing scientists, Fisher says. (March for Science leaders say their aim is to inspire support for science-based policies from people of all backgrounds.)
The group has addressed early criticism about lacking concrete goals by choosing specific, yearlong projects to tackle. This year, for example, it has partnered with the government of Samoa and the Alliance of Small Island States to push nations to publicly acknowledge a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that suggests world leaders must commit to measures stronger than previously thought in order to prevent global warming of 1.5°C or more. March for Science has also hosted video discussions of science-related policies and connected its social media followers with other organizations engaged in science advocacy.
In the lead-up to the U.S. elections, the group launched a Vote for Science social media campaign encouraging followers to vote. Although the group does not endorse candidates, in April, on Earth Day, former Vice President Joe Biden (now the Democratic nominee for president) addressed the March for Science community in a video posted to the group’s Facebook page. He encouraged supporters to continue to “raise [their] collective voices from a safe distance,” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tran, for one, believes the group’s efforts have helped set the stage for the unusual outpouring of political activism from the U.S. scientific community this election year. In October, for example, Scientific American publicly backed Biden in its first political endorsement in the outlet’s 175-year history. And Nature, Science, and The New England Journal of Medicine have all published opinion pieces urging readers to vote against President Donald Trump. Not that long ago, he says, such activism might have seemed unlikely, but “we went there 4 years ago. … The hard work of everyone who participated in the March for Science really shifted … that conversation.”
The March for Science might no longer draw headlines, outside observers say. But it has become part of an evolving science advocacy ecosystem. “They’re definitely in the game,” says Michael Heaney, a political scientist at the University of Glasgow who studies social movements and conducted a randomized survey of participants at the 2017 March for Science in Washington, D.C. “They’re raising their voice … they’re projecting their ideas,” he says, and “they’re doing it consistently.”