The March for Science: advocacy masterstroke or PR misfire?

1st July 2017

By Fiona Lethbridge

On Wednesday 19 April, Stempra members gathered in the upstairs room of the Castle pub in Farringdon for a lively discussion about the March for Science – advocacy masterstroke or PR misfire?. The event was chaired by Alyssa Gilbert, Head of Policy at the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London. The speakers were author and environment campaigner, Mark Lynas; Chief Executive of the Science Media Centre, Fiona Fox; and Professor of Structural Biology and blogger, Stephen Curry.

There wasn’t much disagreement on the panel about whether the march could be a force for good – all three panellists had decided to join the march. But there was plenty of interesting discussion about good and bad reasons to march, as well as some debate about the clarity of the aims and objectives of the march and about its organisation – was it about Donald Trump and his views on climate change and the uncertainty around the Environmental Protection Agency; was it about the strength and position of science in the UK since the Brexit vote; was it a mark of solidarity with US scientists fearing for their future; was it all or none of these things?

Fiona Fox began by discussing what at the time was only rumour, hearsay and innuendo about what Trump was doing to science in the US, and made a plea that whatever scientists march for they don’t play fast and loose with facts and evidence. Fiona also suggested that those planning to march against the gagging of US scientists might want to look in their own back yards at the restrictions currently placed on government scientists in the UK, pointing out that calls for openness and transparency are needed here too. Fiona appealed that we also start being exercised between these marches – we shouldn’t need a worrying situation in the US to prompt us to start challenging the restrictions that have been put on UK scientists for years.

Mark Lynas made a plea for humility and for those taking part in the march to remember that science is global and should be for everyone – not just scientists – and said the march should be apolitical. Mark looked forward to the march uniting people whose interests aren’t always aligned and identifying common ground between different groups – for example climate activists marching alongside pro-GM campaigners.

Stephen Curry suggested that the stated purpose of the march was so vague as to mean the organisers managed to avoid dealing with some of the difficult questions in science today, such as how the media deals with science, how far scientists should stray into policy and politics, how much say the public should have in the science it funds, and how scientists can ensure non-scientists feel involved in and are treated like important stakeholders in science. Stephen said he saw the march as the most scientific of things – an experiment. And one that was worth trying because it could make us all think and get us talking.

There were some great questions and comments from Stempra members in the audience, including asking whether if we’ve really all had enough of experts this march could either simply be preaching to the converted or could even appear cliquey and therefore do more harm than good. In the end nobody thought the march was a ‘PR misfire’, and even though they all had different reasons all three panellists decided to join the march a few days later on Saturday 22 April, and left the pub to work on their placards.

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