It will be remembered as one of the most unlikely global events of the year, the day when tens of thousands of scientists took to the streets across the world.
The March for Science on April 22 brought together scientists in 600 cities across 22 countries, and even the North Pole got in on the act. Climate scientists, oceanographers, astronomers and palaeontologists walked side by side, banners aloft. What began as a Facebook discussion page evolved into a global movement to safeguard the scientific community, with support from more than 220 official science organisations.
The initiative originated in the United States, sparked by a sense that science was at risk of being marginalised. But it quickly coalesced into a much broader movement, to bring scientists and their research closer to the general public.
What united scientists across the world, and motivated them to take to the streets, was a determination to ensure that evidence remained at the centre of decision making processes. In interviews with scientists of different nationalities and in many languages, common themes were the need to protect funding for scientific research and to guarantee openness and transparency.
The march reflected a frustration among scientists that, in an era of so-called fake news, their own voices are not being heard in increasingly polarised debates, from climate change and genetically modified foods to the reconfiguration of health services and the efficacy of vaccinations. In effect, it was a demonstration against a global assault on facts.
Of course, tension between science and politics is not new. From the imprisonment of Galileo in the 17th century for “vehemently suspect of heresy” to the creation of the atomic bomb, rulers have sought to manipulate and control scientists and their thinking. Bill Nye, the US TV presenter known as the Science Guy and one of the founders of March for Science, points out that anti-science was alive and kicking in the 1960s and 70s. “People were denying pollution in 1970, saying it’s A-Okay,” he said. More recently, polarisation over some scientific issues has become supercharged as global environmental problems like the depleting ozone layer and climate change are increasingly being addressed by national policies.
But there is heightened awareness among scientists that we are approaching a pivotal moment for science, with the advent of an era of metadata. We are gaining access to previously unimaginable quantities of data, which help us to create the tools we need for revolutionary scientific advances in fields such as genetics, robotics, meteorology or space exploration. The ability to mine Big Data and to harness its extraordinary potential for the benefit of humanity will depend, to a large extent, on public trust in science. The premise of the March for Science is that trust is being eroded, potentially at a huge cost to society as a whole. That helped to draw cross-community support for the event; from non-scientists, such as teachers, farmers and factory workers, as well as scientists; and from across the political spectrum.
Can a single event, albeit global, really influence public perceptions of science and scientists? The scale of the March for Science was way beyond the organisers’ wildest dreams but, as they acknowledge, their work has probably only just begun. The legacy of the March will be determined by the ability of activists to continue to broaden public understanding of science and even to inspire the next generation of scientists.
Martin Barrow is a journalist and former health editor at The Times. Follow him on Twitter @MartinBarrow