“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
“After peer review!”
That was one of the most popular chants at last Saturday’s Columbus March for Science, a gathering of 5,600 protesters — twice as many as the organizers expected — that began at the Ohio Statehouse. The Earth Day event was one of more than 600 marches worldwide occurring that day to protest anti-science rhetoric and policies in U.S. politics, such as climate change denial and the Trump administration’s promises to cut funding for science.
K-STEM, a Kenyon organization that supports the sciences, offered transportation to marches in Mount Vernon, Mansfield and Columbus.
I’ve been a member of the official March for Science Facebook group since its formation, shortly after the Women’s March in January. The group evolved into a forum on which people shared ‘Why I March’ stories, debated ideas and discussed catchy sign ideas. I was excited to attend the event, especially since the New Zealand march began just before I went to bed the night before.
The March was important to me because I, like many other attendees, am concerned about the growing divide between scientific research and public perception of science. I am also concerned about the impact funding cuts may have on vital research, especially basic research, which focuses on growing understanding rather than creating practical or marketable results. Basic research is an investment in the future, and is often too long-term to be profitable in the private sector. As a result, much of it is funded through universities or government grants.
In many ways, scientific research has bookended my life. Caring and well trained doctors, informed by basic science, gave me the ability to thrive at Kenyon. After graduation, I hope to develop treatments for rare mental and neurological illnesses classified as orphan diseases, meaning they affect fewer than 20,000 people nationwide. This research is often publicly funded.
I drove down to the Columbus march with Sarah Dendy ’19 that morning, April 22. As we made our way to the neo-classical Statehouse, we saw a few fellow marchers but worried about attendance.
As we drew closer to the official start time, the lawn steadily filled, many bearing creative signs. One of the most popular posters was the Hillary Clinton campaign slogan “I’m with her” paired with an image of the earth. Many protesters included quotations from the Dr. Seuss book, The Lorax, such as “I speak for the trees” and “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot/ Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” The Lorax tells the story of a small creature, called the Lorax, who is the sole protector of a forest of trees threatened by deforestation. It has long been used as a symbol of environmentalism.
Others chose to use their signs to advocate for a specific agency that is under threat from the Trump administration.
On the Statehouse steps in front of us, there was an older toddler playing with her sign. One side was printed, and the other had the word “SCIENCE” written on it in crayon with a drawing that was clearly her own work. She was just one of many children who populated the event, ranging in age from gradeschoolers whose signs had clear messages, to babies dressed for the brisk weather in tiny pink pussyhats reminiscent of the earlier women’s marches in January.
The march kicked off with a written statement of support from Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown and speeches from Columbus City Council member Elizabeth Brown and multiple local scientists, who discussed the importance of scientific research, specifically citing their work, to cheers from the crowd. Although a call to save the bees drew one of the loudest cheers, I found Dr. Beth Liston’s testimony about how her basic research later allowed her to cure a patient to be the most powerful.
We saw no counter-protesters. Even though many at the officially non-political event were clearly opposed to Trump, I picked out at least one of his trademark red ballcaps in the crowd.
After the speeches, we greeted Kenyon Professors Yutan Getzler and Drew Kerkhoff, who were also attending the march.
We marched about half a mile, ending in a park with march-sponsored Earth Day activities and food-vendors. The streets had been officially closed down, and the March had paid for security. I saw a few of the protesters and police officers cheerfully greet each other.
“It felt good to be trying to express the importance of science,” Dendy wrote to me in a text message after the march. “It also felt good to be around so many people who value empiricism in decision-making, and to know that they will all work to make their voices heard.”
I sensed a strong commitment in my fellow marchers. After the event had ended, they were still posting to the Facebook group, and I expect they will for months to come — sharing action items, witty signs and their thoughts on our strange times. I have this faith because science, like social change, is a long process filled with setbacks and long stretches of inscrutability.