March for Science 2018: be ready for science activism

March for Science 2018: be ready for science activism

First-hand experience of a research activist encouraging other scientists to get involved

The next Science March will take place in Washington, Göttingen and many other cities throughout the world on the 14th April 2018. This research activism movement born last year is set to gain momentum. It is a reminder to the science community that researchers need to make their voices heard.

Trump misdemeanours

In January 2017, the Trump administration implemented a travel ban against six countries. At that time, I was Chair of the Marie Curie Alumni Association. It was brought to my attention that a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Fellow of Iranian nationality was forced to abandon an invitation to speak at a meeting of the American Physical Society. It was clear that this ban would exclude some MCAA members from participating in conferences in the country with the most prominent scientific activity and that MCAA must show solidarity with these members.

The central idea of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions and of the European Research Area is that the international mobility of researchers promotes greater understanding and exchange within the research community. MCAA opposed the travel ban and anything that limits the freedom of researchers to participate fully in scientific exchange. MCAA joined with many other European researcher organisations to support the EuroScience-led open letter that expressed opposition to the travel ban but also to the Trump administration’s disdain for fact-based policy-making and the threatened censorship of US researchers, for instance, removal of funding for climate scientists.

The invention by the Trump administration of the phrase “Alternative Facts” enraged the scientific community, who strive to ascertain facts through applying the scientific method. The US government medical agency CDC has recently banned from using the phrases “evidence-based” and “science-based” in its documentation.

Researchers’ influence

How researchers can raise their voices to influence the world positively was a focus of MCAA’s Annual Conference in Salamanca in March 2017. The Head of Unit for the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions in the European Commission, Sophie Beernaerts, held a plenary talk on the role of scientists and researchers in society. She urged MCAA members to become active, involved and engaged as scientists and as citizens. MCAA has certainly played that role in my life. MCAA has developed into a platform that can support members to engage more actively in societal debates.

In February 2017, I joined the team organising Science March Göttingen. Science March Göttingen was initiated and led by a core group of US citizens, Yuko Maeda, Anne-Marie Bessette and Brian Kearney, who were very strongly opposed to and ashamed of developments in their country. The grassroots initiative was as broadly based and inclusive as possible and attracted support from the research community and the general public. Developments in the USA provoked the emergence of the Science March movement but the vast majority of activists see March for Science as being a wider celebration of science that promotes communication between the scientific community and the public.

The Göttingen Seven

Göttingen, where I have lived for the past ten years, is a university town in the centre of Germany located between Frankfurt and Hannover. The University of Göttingen has historically been at the centre of the development of academic freedom in German life. In the 19th century, the Göttingen Seven (including the Brothers Grimm), were dismissed from their posts at the University of Göttingen because of their opposition to the autocratic rule of the King of Hannover. The Göttingen Seven won widespread public support throughout Germany and their case became a milestone in the development of democracy in Germany.

In the 20th century, the Manifesto of the Göttingen Eighteen (supported by Nobel laureates Otto Hahn, Max Born, Werner Heisenberg and Max von Laue) successfully convinced the West German government not to procure tactical nuclear weapons. Both of these cases involved scientists and academics, who made their opinion known to those in power. In the first case, the signatories became displaced academics. In the second case, the signatories influenced policy-making for the better.

March for Science

From discussions with colleagues involved in the March for Science movement elsewhere, it is clear that many of those in positions of power in the research world were very slow to understand and support the March for Science.

Ulrike Beisiegel, understood implicitly that, in her role as President of the University of Göttingen, she had a duty to raise her voice to express opposition to unjust and unwise policies and to encourage other researchers to do so too. She agreed to host the main speeches related to the event on the central square of the University that is very aptly named after the Göttingen Seven. She was the first speaker.

Among the other speakers included Pinar Senoguz, a Turkish migration researcher exiled from her home country due to her support for the “Academics for Peace” petition. Senoguz’s research at the University of Göttingen is supported by the Philipp Schwartz Initiative of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. This funding programme helps displaced researchers to integrate into the German academic system. She reported on her personal situation and the problems facing researchers in Turkey.

The then Minister for Science and Culture of the government of Lower Saxony, Gabriele Heinen-Kljajić, announced a new research funding programme to support universities in Lower Saxony to host displaced researchers.

Subsequently, Arnulf Quadt of the University of Göttingen made a strong defence of the global nature of research on the basis of the international makeup of his research group and the University of Göttingen and his solidarity with scientific colleagues throughout the world. Finally, local historian, Pastor Ludgar Gaillard, explained the historical role of Göttingen in the development of academic freedom in Germany.

Our team of volunteers found it immensely satisfying to contribute to such a great success. The March attracted support from funding agencies, university presidents, the president of the German Rectors Conference, members of parliament, Göttingen’s researchers but most importantly of all from the general public. In January 2017, the March was registered for 250 participants and eventually attracted 10 times so many. It was a great experience to be part of a team that made this Science March possible in so little time. That so many people are willing to raise their voices to defend science, research integrity and academic freedom throughout the world is truly heartening.

Grassroots research activism

Between my work with the Marie Curie Alumni Association and Science March Göttingen, I feel that I have engaged with grassroots activism for the first time in my life. I have become convinced that researchers must become more active in defending fact-based policy making.

Researchers often have a very highly nuanced approach to dealing with complex problems: we are often very aware of fine details. This can often be too involved for the general public and politicians. Nevertheless, we must also encourage scientists to communicate their research to the outside world in ways that promote science literacy and that win support for research from the general public.

Brian Cahill

Brian is  German Chapter Chair  of the Marie-Curie Alumni Association and  former Chair of the Association.

Photo credit: CC-BY-2.0 by Becker1999

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