The March for Science has landed under the microscope amid mounting criticism over its left-of-center political agenda, prompting fears that the event could do more harm to the image of scientific research than good.
Organizers of the Saturday protest, which is being held in Washington, D.C., along with 600 satellite marches across the nation and worldwide, insist the march is political but nonpartisan.
Not everyone is buying it.
“It clearly has a partisan framing,” said Roger A. Pielke Sr., senior research scientist, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Mr. Pielke, who has been criticized by the climate-change movement for challenging the “consensus,” said he fears the event may erode the public’s trust in science by reinforcing the impression that research is being spun to advance political causes.
“I feel this will hurt the reputation of scientists as honest brokers,” said Mr. Pielke in an email. “This march will make them (appropriately) seen as advocates for the liberal side of the Democratic Party. This is not healthy for science, and more broadly, in terms of how scientists engage with policymakers.”
The event’s sponsors include a host of pro-Democrat and left-wing groups, including NextGen Climate, founded by San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer, the Democratic Party’s biggest individual donor in the last two election cycles.
Lydia Villa-Komaroff, a molecular and cellular biologist and one of three honorary co-chairs, agreed that while the November election “catalyzed” the march, the event isn’t aimed at promoting or attacking Democrats or Republicans.
“I think it’s fair to say that this administration catalyzed the happening of this march, there’s no doubt about that, but I do believe that it’s political in nature in that it deals with politics, but it is nonpartisan,” she said in a Wednesday press call. “It’s aimed not only at both sides of the aisle, where there are people who are dismissing the use of evidence in decisions and in policy, but at the public at large.”
She also compared the March on Science to the Women’s March, held on Jan. 21, which was avowedly anti-Trump, although Ms. Villa-Komaroff didn’t see it that way.
“I don’t think we’re going to be labeling ourselves as being on one side or the other, just as in the Women’s March, I don’t think that that necessarily labeled all women as being on one side or the other,” she said.
One of the march’s primary goals is to drum up support for federal funding of scientific research, which has been targeted by the Trump administration but which has been declining as a percentage of the overall economy for 50 years.
“The federal support for research and development in the United States as a percentage, as a fraction of our overall economy is less than half of what it was in 1960s, and that didn’t happen since the Trump administration began,” said former Democratic Rep. Rush Holt, who serves as CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
It’s the march’s other goals that have raised doubts about the event’s claims of neutrality. For example, organizers have placed an enormous emphasis increasing on racial and gender diversity within the scientific community, igniting a flap over having the event co-chaired by Bill Nye, who is white.
March supporters have also blasted the Trump administration’s so-called “travel ban,” saying that it hinders the free exchange of ideas between scientists.
What rankles many critics is that the march has positioned itself as the arbiter of what represents legitimate science and what doesn’t by accepting partnerships with some groups and rejecting others, decisions that opponents say have been governed more by political than scientific analysis.
For example, among the March for Science’s partners is the Center for Biological Diversity, which has fought GMOs, despite research showing that genetically modified foods are safe.
The list of partners includes a host of climate-change groups and opponents of nuclear power, even though nuclear energy is renewable and doesn’t contribute to greenhouse-gas emissions in the atmosphere.
Another sponsor is 350.org, a climate-change organization that has led the “keep-it-in-the-ground” movement even though U.S. carbon emissions have dropped for years as coal is replaced by natural gas, which has boomed as a result of hydraulic fracturing.
The industry-funded group Energy in Depth released a compendium Thursday “demonstrating that air quality improvements across the country can be traced directly back to fracking.”
“Activists who are supposedly ‘marching for science’ this weekend should stop denying the science that clearly shows shale development has led to cleaner air and lower greenhouse gas emissions,” said Jeff Eshelman, Energy in Depth executive vice president.
The march welcomed partnerships with several atheist groups, including the American Humanist Association, but rejected a request by the Discovery Institute, which argues for intelligent design.
“Our basic take is that it is not really a march for science, it’s a march for certain ideological issues that they are using science to support,” said Stephen Meyer, executive director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science Culture.
Roy W. Spencer, principal research scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and a critic of the climate-change movement, called the march premise silly, saying, “Trump isn’t anti-science.”
“I suspect he’s against biased science being misused to promote a specific agenda,” Mr. Spencer said in an email. “For example, virtually all climate funding goes toward the narrative that humans are entirely to blame for climate change. … We scientists are paid to find evidence for a human influence.”
Mr. Holt acknowledged that using the march as a vehicle to increase support for scientific research could backfire by making the field appear even more politicized, but he also said he hoped the event would help bridge the gap between scientists and non-scientists.
“A few people have said, ‘Oh, this is not what scientists do,’ or ‘Someone might get the wrong idea,’” Mr. Holt said. “But far more are saying, ‘Way to go.’ “