The March for Science to Take to the Streets of Columbus April 22
Scientists know what you think of them. They know about their reputation; laboratory dwellers or ivory tower occupiers, removed from the problems of the real world, issuing vague but iron-fisted pronouncements that change our understanding of the world. They know about these stereotypes and they know that they are false. So on April 22 – Earth Day – the scientists of America want to show you a different side of themselves by marching in the streets.
The notion of an March for Science came from two recent events. The first was the “gag order” placed on governmental science organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency at the outset of President Donald Trump’s administration. The second was the success of the Women’s March on Washington, which drew larger-than-expected crowds to the capital and to sister marches all over the world. In the wake of the Women’s March, a “March for Science” Facebook group formed with only a handful of members. In the span of a week, thousands upon thousands more had joined.
In Columbus, two graduate students at the Ohio State University watched all of this unfold, independent of one another. Jenna Antonucci, an HIV researcher in the OSU Microbiology program, decided on a whim to start a Columbus satellite group of the March for Science. She soon learned that Chris, an OSU PhD candidate with a focus on biological chemistry who declined to provide his last name, was also interested in starting such a group. Both of them had potent reasons for getting involved with such an endeavor.
“To this day I’ve talked to people who don’t understand that the virus is transmissible from heterosexual couples,” said Jenna, reflecting on the sociopolitical factors surrounding her area of study; HIV and AIDS. “That’s something so basic, and we have an outbreak of STDs in Ohio for this reason because people have a distrust of science or they feel like they can’t understand it…and when they feel like they can’t trust it, they don’t make informed decisions.”
It was a different misunderstood illness - cancer – which led Chris to want to participate in more direct public outreach for the sake of science. The biochemist lamented the commonly held belief that there is only one kind of cancer, and therefor it must have one mythical cure. It’s big misconceptions like that, said Chris, that add to the divide between the scientists and the public.
“A lot of that is on us,” said Chris. “There’s no doubt that scientists struggle to communicate with the public. We are taught from a very early time in our careers as scientists that the more technical we are the more right we’re going to be in our discussions. And that’s great when you’re talking with experts, but terrible if you’re talking with laypeople.”
In the minds of these scientists, the problems they confront exist beyond any one policy or president, and that’s reflected in their vision for a nonpartisan march.
“We say ‘Trump Administration’ because that’s what it’s called,” said Jenna. “But we know it goes much deeper than President Trump himself.”
The enemy, if one can call it that, is not any president or government, but an elusive and omnipresent malaise called “scientific illiteracy.”
“We can complain about decisions being made in government, we can complain about moratoriums on science and all of these things, but they all boil down to scientific illiteracy,” said Chris. “All of our issues that we have boil down to people not understanding even the most basic parts of science and of scientific disciplines. So my biggest fear is the creation of another generation of people who simply don’t have an understanding of science.”
An understanding of science doesn’t just mean memorization of the periodic table of the elements or the makeup of a cell, explained Chris. It means employing a scientific approach to topics that aren’t always associated with science, and in that sense, even the science world could use some learning and growth.
“Our education doesn’t end with the public, it doesn’t end with politicians,” said Chris. “It ends with ourselves and even the scientific community needs to be educated on other parts of science.”
For Jenna, the March offers an opportunity for people to see scientists as human, existing in the real world and not just a lab. She is a woman of faith and a scientist at the same time – something many people might consider a contradiction, but the March may be an opportunity to prove otherwise.
“I think it’s important that they realize that we’re real people and we’re trustworthy and our careers are about finding the truth,” said Jenna. “And I’ll tell you what, it sucks when you think something’s true and you find out it’s not. And what do you do? Do you lie? Do you change the data so that it fits your truth? No, you say, all right, I’m wrong, but we’re going to find the truth.”
Those are lofty goals, but a March for Science – or any march, for that matter – must naturally run up against logistical realities. Not only is there the proverbial red tape to slice through, there is also the fact that activism is the hot new thing at the moment – Jenna and Chris had to make sure their march could fit in between all the others.
What they do know for sure is that the Columbus satellite March for Science will commence with the Washington march and others around the country; on Earth Day, April 22. While the exact route remains under consideration, the march will probably begin somewhere on the Scioto Mile and end at Statehouse. Marchers can then disperse into the Columbus Commons, where Green Columbus will be holding their Earth Day celebration.
There are five people in the Columbus march’s core organizing committee, all of them meeting once a week. At the same time, Jenna and Chris are working scientists, spending 40-50 hours a week in the lab. Jenna is working on a paper while Chris is writing his thesis and hoping to graduate a few days before the march.
Luckily, the national March for Science and the other satellite groups have offered advice on everything from toilets to sign language interpreters. When Jenna and Chris needed a logo, they simply asked and one was provided. Organizers from Philadelphia assisted with funding options. The Australians, it seems, have been very helpful.
“We put out a request if someone could help us build a website,” said Chris. “Two days later we had a website up and running, and the guy was like, ‘Sorry that took so long.’”
The cooperation and dedication was such that Jenna was surprised at how well the whole thing was coming together. Estimates of crowd size come from social media; the March for Science – Columbus OHIO Facebook page has more than 3,000 followers. Taking a cue from the Women’s March, which ended up having more attendees than expected, Jenna and Chris are rounding the expected number of attendees up to 6,000 to be on the safe side.
In all of their organizing efforts, Jenna and Chris aim to “do it right.” They are aware of the protests Columbus has seen this year that ended in arrests and tear gas and they are keen to stay away from such drama.
“We’re not here to cause trouble, we’re not here to get mad at anyone,” said Chris. “We are here to prove a point and get an idea across and hopefully continue to push that idea, but we’re not here to antagonize the police or the city.”
They’ve learned of organizers from Kent State University and Wright State University busing people down to Columbus for the event. Engagement from nonscientists has grown, especially when it was made clear that the march was “specifically nonpartisan.” Through it all, the overarching vision of the march among the core organizers has remained the same.
“When we talk about how we imagine this march to be, our ideal, are kids on shoulders,” said Jenna. “We want children and teenagers and adults to walk away having learned something and have this total understanding that science isn’t just something that you look at and read about, scientists aren’t just people in a bubble, science is totally inundated in our lives. Everything we do is science. And when you realize that, everything that’s happening right now kind of gives it a new perspective and you feel the need so strongly to speak out.”
“We’d like them to come away with an excitement for science,” said Chris. “We don’t want them to come away with any specific set of facts that we want them to regurgitate. We want them to come away with an excitement for science. We want them to come away with a renewed sort of enjoyment of learning.”
The scientific opinion of the organizers was clear and unambiguous; all are welcome.
“We try to be nonpartisan, we try to be inclusive and we’d love for everyone to help us with that,” said Chris.
“You watched one episode of Bill Nye and you loved it? You like his ties? Come!” said Jenna.
On a national scale, scientists wonder about whether they should take on new, public roles as activists, but for Jenna and Chris, the transition doesn’t seem so difficult. As an HIV researcher, sociopolitical aspects have always factored into Jenna’s work, and for Chris, activism almost feels natural.
“I don’t see why any scientist who has ever taught would have any issue feeling uncomfortable in activism,” said Chris. “It is really just an extension of the educational role we all have. And I don’t think it’s just a role, it’s an obligation. If we can help people make decisions that are better, we have an obligation to do so.”
The goal, said Jenna, is to offer people an opportunity to ask questions, read a book, dive in and wonder things.
“We were given this world to explore it, right?”