Defend, Not Defund

The March For Science drew people of all political backgrounds together in an effort to preserve research, health, and the environment.

Children led the March For Science in San Francisco on April 22. (Courtesy of March For Science)

This year, San Francisco has hosted some of the largest protests in the city’s rich resistance history. The Women’s March on Jan. 21 drew 100,000 people. Several months later, on April 22, the March For Science had around 55,000 attendees — a headcount larger than the Tax March and May Day March combined.

The March For Science was bigger than organizers imagined.

“We didn’t expect that many,” Kristen Ratan, co-Founder of the Collaborative Knowledge Foundation, and the main organizer of the march, tells SF Weekly. 18,000 people had expressed interest in coming, and the March for Science San Francisco team predicted somewhere around 15,000 to 20,000 people would show up. But they got a shock: Aerial photos show Market Street jam-packed with people, the crowd stretching all the way from Justin Herman Plaza to Civic Center. At a certain point, people coming out of BART couldn’t even fit in the Plaza anymore, and just began the long march through downtown toward the Earth Day Science Fair.

That 55,000 number is pretty specific, considering that no one was officially checked in anywhere, but its sources are strong. “Being science people, we estimated the count using aerial footage, a mathematical analysis, and the crowd space in photos,” Ratan says. “It was pretty extraordinary. For a city of this size, it was really punching above our weight.”

There are several theories on how this march ended up being so huge. First, there wasn’t an Oakland equivalent, so it drew crowds from the East Bay into the city. Second, the event was pitched as family-friendly, with a fair amount of outreach done in local schools. And lastly, the March For Science drew people from all political parties to the streets. Compared with the Women’s March, Tax March, or the May Day protests, anti-Trump signs were in short supply. Instead, there was a collective call of support for the environment and for the preservation of endangered species — and a ton of sassy science puns.

Still, marching for a specific field of study is uncommon, at least in the United States.

“There has never been anything like this that I’ve heard of, to march for something we take for granted,” Ratan says. “But we are an evidence-based science society, and a leader internationally — and the U.S.A. has set the stage for some of the most amazing discoveries over the past century.”

That appreciation for science and all that it provides our society is a unifier in a country that feels more often than not immensely divided. In this case, people from all political backgrounds showed up to march next to each other, an unusual case in 2017.

“There were marches in many, many cities in red states, cities that identify as Republican-dominant,” Ratan says, though this doesn’t appear remarkable to her. “There’s a difference between being part of something, and being political. People can vote for Trump and not believe in his policies in climate change; people are able to disagree with him, regardless of their voting party.”

The march’s calls to action never mentioned President Donald Trump or his administration. Instead, they focused on what scientists need to be successful in their research, and subsequently, to society. “Publicly funded scientists must be free to communicate openly their research, data sets, and interpretations of their work,” reads one goal. “Investment in science and research is essential to drive innovation and deliver solutions to the complex challenges society faces,” states another.

In fact, the most controversial goal of the March For Science appeared to be in viewing human beings as equals, something even a hardened Republican would have a hard time publicly disagreeing with (though their actions may prove otherwise).

Ratan added in some of the concerns she’s encountered from the science community that inspired people to march.

“Publicly funded research under Obama was meant to remain publicly available,” she explains. “The idea that that could disappear is a grave concern. That begins to undermine the idea that we’re all looking at the same objective information to draw our own conclusions.”

The fact that scientific developments are key to identifying cures and treatments for illnesses like cancer also unifies communities. Trump has cut 18 percent of the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funds the majority of disease research carried out at universities and hospitals across the country. Losing this funding will negatively affect millions, regardless of their political affiliation.

“If science is not being well-funded, we will lose ground,” Ratan says. “You can’t just pull funding and then re-establish it four years later. Labs close up.”

The Environmental Protection Agency will feel the largest effect of Trump’s presidency, with a 31 percent cut in funding. Among other things, this would eliminate the Clean Power Plan, a program President Barack Obama put into place to counteract the U.S.’s massive contribution to our global fossil-fuel crisis.

So, people marched for science — and laughed and sang while they did it. Sign-making skills have exploded this year, with people upping the ante on witty slogans, glitter, and even puppets. Marches are social events, and they’re one of the only occasions in San Francisco where it’s appropriate for friends to travel in a pack of 20. (Unlike going to restaurants, sans reservation. Stop doing that.) Walking miles for your beliefs is also often physically draining, leaving protesters with that feel-good exhaustion at the end of the day, plus some handy data on their Fitbits.

But once the march is over — then what? After months of hard work by organizing groups, what do they do with their epic social-media followings and the momentum they helped create? And do marchers hold onto their bent signs, or throw them in the recycling bin and move on with their lives?

With the March For Science behind her, Ratan is still keeping busy. When not running her own company, which creates open-source solutions for sharing scientific research, she’s collaborating with other satellite March For Science organizers around the country, to keep the march alive as an entity and advocacy group.

But for the non-scientists among us, who got nauseous over fetal pigs in high school science classes and who can’t quite articulate the difference between bacteria and a virus, there is still work to be done.

“Everyone can reach out to their own network, and continue to make the case for the environment, and for funded research that will impact health,” Ratan says. “Those are key issues. It’s hard to find people who disagree with that. Even people who voted for Trump tend to agree that repealing the Endangered Species Act is wrong.

“Pay attention to these things, and spread the word,” she adds. “If we’re going to cut funding to NIH for cancer research, people need to know what that means.”

With the entire world in the midst of an environmental crisis, thanks to pollution, global warming, and rising tides, it can be hard to feel like one person can make any difference. But there is a track record for this kind of success: Saving the whales, keeping the oceans clean through beach cleanups, recycling, and saving water are all campaigns that have seen rampant success, thanks to a combination of activism and policy.

Ratan embraces the “we can do it” attitude.

“We need to work to keep science at the forefront of people’s mind’s in a way that makes them happy,” she says.

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