Returning to the March for Science: Where are we now?

6/16/17

It’s been almost two months since supporters around the world marched in solidarity to increase public awareness for science and speak up for informed decision-making in the government.  This feels like a good time to step back and assess the impact of the March and discuss what’s percolating as we move forward.

Overall, the reception for the March was mixed depending on who you asked. The Pew Research Center surveyed 1,012 people about their reaction to the March for Science and a summary of their findings can be read here. Pew reported that it was primarily Democrats and younger generations that supported the March for Science and thought it would help science in the future. Although this is a small sample size, it really is unfortunate that the March appears to have only enjoyed partisan support. The whole point of the movement was to encourage advocacy from individuals of all backgrounds and create a new public discourse about informed policy. In this respect, the March for Science had questionable impact on the collective view of science in the entire community.

Perhaps telling is this graphic that summarizes the viewpoints by political leaning:

Source: Pew Research Center

Add into the mix that President Trump announced earlier in June that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement and that he is still committed to reinvesting in coal and fossil fuel energies, it seems the March was not successful in reaching the ears of the White House. This is very disappointing, especially considering clean energy jobs are now a larger portion of the US economy than coal,  and global warming is going to have a major impact on our health and our economy in the future.

Thankfully, the message did reach ears on Capitol Hill – right where the March for Science ended in D.C. The White House’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2017 including drastic cuts to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and many other science funding agencies. But the deal struck by Congress to fund the government through the end of September ultimately saw an increase in funding (from 2016 levels) for the NIH and other organizations, including: the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA, the US Geological Survey (USGS), the National Science Foundation, and parts of the Department of Energy (DOE). Unfortunately, the EPA is still in the crosshairs of the new administration and lost funding compared with last year.

Overall, this is good news considering the people directly responsible for negotiating and enacting the federal budget appear to be supportive of a positive role for science in society and within our government. However, the battle will be taken up again later this year with the 2018 budget proposal. Science is again being threatened with devastating cuts to research, from a 22% cut to the NIH, 19% to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), 15% at the DOE, 13% at the NSF, and horrific cuts to the  research at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). NASA would see a slight budget increase, but not to climate-related research.

For me, this is where any short-term gains stemming from the March for Science will be measured. How will Congress respond to cuts in science moving forward in the Trump Administration? It is incredibly unfortunate that there is a still a partisan divide when it comes to support for science. We need to work together as nation to cross those barriers and tear them down. Science impacts us all and a unified front for science advocacy makes it that much more powerful. Below is a picture of my friend fr with his sign during the march, which I think highlights this important issue:

It’s also up to the scientists and doctors and researchers and all those in the scientific community to continue engaging and speaking up about these issues. We have to work together on this. The momentum of the March will only continue if there is a sustained level of input and idea-sharing that politicians and the community find accessible. The long-term payoff of this continued discussion will be with the next generation and the development of our world’s future research and STEM community, investment in clean energy, education, and the development of new technologies to better our world. Hopefully in the budget battles to come the important gains sciences has made this year will be highlighted and used to protect funding and inspire others to invest wisely in our future.