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University researchers and scientists make rare political engagement over fears about federal role

Giancarlo Lopez-Martinez, a professor of biology at New Mexico State University, had plans set to attend an academic conference in Amherst, Mass., this week along with two graduate students. Spurred partly by the release of a White House budget proposal that included massive cuts to federal research funding, they decided to make a postconference detour to Washington, D.C., to join the April 22 March for Science.

“When the budget thing happened, we knew we definitely had to be there,” Lopez-Martinez said. “We had to make our presence felt because scientists never really do.”

The national march in D.C. this Saturday, along with satellite events across the country (and around the world) likely won’t match the turnout of the Women’s March on Jan. 21 — a protest some observers speculated was among the largest in U.S. history. But the March for Science has received intense levels of interest since organizers in January began discussing the possibility and subsequently launched Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said those efforts by first-time organizers grew out of the Women’s March, where many participants brought messages in support of science to an event with an ostensibly separate purpose.

Marching Throughout the World

Researchers in Europe, Canada,

Asia, Australia and elsewhere 

join their U.S. counterparts to

advocate for science. Read more.

Despite those origins, Holt said this week that the March for Science is a nonpartisan event that will focus on a positive message about what’s needed for science to thrive.

“This is, I think, a once-in-a-generation occasion where friends of science and scientists have shown not just a willingness but an eagerness to step into the public square,” Holt said.

Anxiety about the role of science in society and public policy has led members of the profession to engage the larger public in a way they haven’t before, he said.

As the momentum for the march grew over the last few months, large mainstream academic and research organizations like AAAS have joined more traditionally activist groups to make the event a success. AAAS today is hosting a series of workshops at its headquarters in Washington. And the march Saturday will be preceded by teach-ins on the National Mall.

The motivating issues are both specific to the Trump administration — concerns over researchers’ freedom of movement due to travel bans or other immigration restrictions, and an open disregard for established climate science — as well as long-term negative trends in areas like federal support for research. The new administration’s first budget blueprint released last month, which proposed slashing NIH funding by nearly 20 percent, punctuated those concerns.

Gretchen Goldman, research director for the Center for Science & Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the nonprofit advocacy group has long worked with…

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