Why March for Science?

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Participation Saturday, April 22, 2017 View Count = 1256

Why March for Science?

This week’s guest blog is by Laurent Carbonneau. Laurent is Evidence for Democracy's engagement organizer, responsible for local organization across Canada. Evidence for Democracy is Canada's leading non-partisan nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to science integrity and evidence-based decision-making in government.

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Canadian scientists have traditionally been reluctant to engage in politics—the culture of scientific research demands a level of hard data and skepticism that doesn’t often translate well to the world of passionate advocacy. As government actions have threatened free and open science in recent years, however, scientists have gotten involved in the democratic process to defend good data and the spirit of inquiry. Today’s March for Science illustrates this shift.

For the first time, and in the face of the Trump administration’s spending cuts and perceived indifference to science and evidence, scientists and allies in over 500 cities around the world—including cities across Canada—are gathering in a grassroots show of solidarity to demand better from our decision-makers. Scientists are coming alive to the possibilities inherent in putting their voices together. At Evidence for Democracy, we want to help them channel that energy and expertise as effectively as possible.

As an organizer at Evidence for Democracy, I’ve learned why we want scientists engaged in politics, what the barriers to engagement are, and how organizing can help overcome them.

Scientists have unique, specialized knowledge which can help inform public policy. Raising the political profile of scientists also makes science issues more visible—getting involved is a great way to make sure that governments respect the integrity of the scientific process in their own departments, give it the funding it deserves, and base their decisions on good evidence. Evidence for Democracy itself grew out of the 2012 Death of Evidence rally in Ottawa, which attracted hundreds of scientists angered by cuts to critical scientific institutions and demonstrated that scientists can make themselves heard when they get active.

Political organizing for scientists is a unique challenge. They’re naturally cautious and need to be thoroughly convinced of the merits of an argument before they’ll accept it. Storytelling around personal connections to issues, the heart of organizing theory, just isn’t all that effective with a skeptical audience. Additionally, advocacy isn’t often a part of scientific training, and stepping into this new arena is uncomfortable for lots of scientists—not only is it a whole new set of skills to learn and sharpen, it threatens their self-image as unbiased, neutral observers.

We believe that the engagement ladder simply has to start at a different spot: instead of asking interested but skeptical scientists to come to a rally, we ask them to write an op-ed or participate in a public consultation, where their knowledge of the facts and context can be put to its most productive use. One of the things our organization does to help scientists is to teach public communications skills, such as writing effective press releases about their research. The best scientific data aren’t worth anything if no one sees or properly understands them!

There’s an old joke about academic research that as you specialize, you learn more and more about less and less until you know everything about nothing. Scientists are by nature specialists, and part of creating a politically effective scientific community is breaking down siloes and getting a diverse array of scientists in the same room. There’s a lot that scientists of different backgrounds can learn from each other, and the scientific community is stronger and better able to push for the use of good science in government when its members know each other well. To that end, we help organize pub nights and discussions for scientists and the scientifically-minded public all over Canada.

Though there are barriers to scientists getting involved in politics—a cautious culture, a limited tradition of collective action—we believe that with the right tools and encouragement, scientists can also be effective advocates and engaged citizens.

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