The 2018 March for… and the Sustainability of … Science.

Scientists are appropriately focused on the sustainability of science: will it continue to prove useful and beneficial to society? Will society continue to support science?

Which brings us to the March for Science.

On April 14, if history runs true to form, thousands of scientists around the world, and an even larger number of supporters of science, will take to the streets in a second March for Science. Weather forecasts for that day are just coming into view. As of this writing, in Washington DC, the outlook is for fair and warm; a far cry from last year’s cold and rain.

Marking the occasion, this past Thursday, the George Mason Center for Climate Change Communicationmade public the findings from its survey of participants and followers in the 2017 March. Whether you’re preparing to join this year’s March or not, the survey results make useful reading.

(Substantive? Interesting? Evidence-based versus conjectural? Facts versus spin? These signature traits mark the work of 4C, as the George Mason researchers refer to themselves. Their stated goal?To develop and apply social science insights to help society make informed decisions that will stabilize the earth’s life-sustaining climate, and prevent further harm from climate change.Under the leadership of its director, Ed Maibach, the Center has developed a reputation for insightful studies and reports over an extended period of years.)

Here are the 2017 March survey key findings, reproduced verbatim:

  • Roughly 7 out of 10 survey respondents said they participated in a March for Science in person on April 22, 2017; about one third (32%) attended the main march in Washington, DC.
  • Although most had participated in a march or demonstration before (71%), for many, the March for Science was their first science-related demonstration (88%).
  • A majority (61%) felt that, in their country, conditions for scientists are headed in the wrong direction. Respondents in the United States assigned most blame for this to Republicans in Congress (93% said they deserve “all” or “a lot” of the blame) and Donald Trump (90% said “all” or “a lot”).
  • The most common concerns expressed by participants in the United States were: the current Congress and administration would make harmful reductions in the use of scientific evidence in government decision making (91%); cuts in government funding for research (90%); and reductions in access to government data for scientific research (81%).
  • Participants expressed many goals that they held for the March for Science. The two most commonly cited goals were “increasing evidence based input into policy making” (89% selected this as a goal, and 38% selected it as their most important goal), and “sustaining public funding of science” (88% and 20%, respectively).
  • Despite these aspirations, only about half of participants thought the march would be at least moderately effective at increasing evidence based input into policy making (46%), and at sustaining public funding for science (52%).
  • Majorities of participants in the United States said they thought the response to the march was positive among scientists (91%), Democrats in Congress (79%), the news media (70%), and the American public (55%). However, majorities also thought that Donald Trump (68%) and Republicans in Congress (64%) had a negative response to the march.
  • Nearly all participants said they were taking a variety of other advocacy actions to advance the goals that brought them to participate in the march, including discussing science-related issues with their family and friends (97%), contacting government officials (83%), attending another march or demonstration (80%), donating money to a scientific or political organization (78%), and discussing science-related issues online (73%).
  • Most participants felt that a number of actions would be effective at reducing harm to science from the current Congress and the president, if many people do them. The action seen as most effective was donating money to a scientific or political organization (84% perceived it as at least moderately effective), followed by contacting government officials (78%), engaging with the media (76%), attending a march or public demonstration (72%), discussing science-related issues with their friends and family (70%), and discussing science-related issues online (58%).
  • About half of participants (51%) viewed scientists as either a “somewhat” (44%) or “heavily” (8%) politically liberal group, whereas most of the other half (47%) see scientists neither liberal nor conservative in particular. Very few participants (2%) saw scientists as a “somewhat” (2%) or “heavily” (<1%) politically conservative group.
  • Only about one in six (17%) participants said that the political leaning of scientists hurts their ability to be objective. However, two out of three (66%) said that the political leaning of scientists makes it more difficult for people of another party to believe them.

You now have a flavor for the survey and the scholarship – but if you have the time, please read the entire report. There’s much more to be mined from the details of the 4C summary.

To recap, and distill down even further:

Respondents from the United States largely shared a view that conditions for scientists are headed in the wrong direction, and that one party was largely to blame[1]. Nearly 90% of participants were looking to see increased evidence-based input into policymaking, and sustained support for science. However, only half the participants figured the March itself would be effective toward these same ends.  Most figured one political party would view the March favorably; the other negatively. They viewed scientists as either politically liberal or politically neutral as a group as opposed to conservative. For the most part they didn’t see this as hurting their ability to be objective, but two-thirds thought this made it more difficult for people of a different political persuasion to believe them.

In a nutshell: March participants want increased evidence-based policymaking and support for science. They see the chances that the March will change minds as no better than 50-50. In fact they believe that conservatives (political leaders and general public) will see this as a poke in the eye.

Given this evidence-based social science, what should scientists do?

Science can’t be sustainable if only half of  Americans support it. In light of the 4C survey data, it follows the March ought to be substantially positive in tone and impact, across any partisan divide, OR it should be a miniscule, nearly invisible piece of scientists’ engagement with policymakers and the public. If it’s going to express a political message then it should be accompanied, even overwhelmed, by a rich, ongoing relationship that looks far more like collaboration – or even courtship– than confrontation.

The latter is in fact the reality. To start, US scientists wake up every morning to focus on the day job. Research: pushing back the frontiers of our basic understanding of how the natural world works, as well as the social science of how seven billion people think and engage socially with each other. Service: applying this understanding to technological advance; partnering up with individuals, corporations, and nations to build a safer, healthier, richer, more satisfying life for all, while preserving the web of ecosystems and natural resources that sustain us. Teaching: sharing the excitement of science with young people and inspiring them to join in. Scientists are providing an extraordinary return on society’s $100B+  investment.

And when scientists dialog with policymakers, the majority (?), certainly the effective bits, of the communications are characterized by respect, by two-way listening and learning as much as talking, by clarity but also by accommodation.

We know all this in part because the 2018 federal budgets for science were generally positive, exceeding substantially the initial administration requests… and these budgets were passed by majorities of both chambers of Congress, and signed by the president. Support continues to be widespread and bipartisan.

We want things to stay that way.

My dad, himself a scientist and a manager of scientists, always said to my brother and me: make your compliments public and keep your criticisms private.

So, this coming Saturday, as we prepare to join the March, and make clever signage, and join in any chanting, or model desired behavior for the kids we brought along, or perhaps even make a speech…

… let’s think like scientists – be (4C) evidence-based in our approach to the audience we’re trying to cultivate and persuade. Let’s defuse the confrontation and accentuate the celebration.

Let’s do our bit to make, and keep, science sustainable.

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[1]Incidentally, the survey also noted in the body of the report that only a minority (roughly a quarter) of scientists thought they shared some of the blame as well. Non-scientist participants in the March viewed scientists more favorably.

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