April 22nd was supposed to be a victory lap and the birth of a new movement. That day, the March for Science saw a million scientists and science lovers descend on Washington, D.C. and cities and hamlets around the world, the physical manifestation of a viral online campaign.
It was the first time scientists had ever mobilized en masse as the centerpiece of movement, spurred by the Trump administration’s attacks on everything from climate change science to diversity and inclusivity. But in the six months since the signs were recycled and the white coats returned to the labs, the March for Science has been dogged by the same problems that plagued it in the run up to April 22nd. On Monday, 15 past and present march volunteers posted an open letter outlining persistent issues with the March, including its approach to inclusivity, organizational dysfunction, and mismanagement.
“We are concerned about ongoing issues related to transparency, undervaluing and mismanaging volunteer labor, and sidelining both diverse voices and the ways science relates to justice and equity,” the authors wrote in their letter. “Though the organization calls itself an open, grassroots movement, it is run like a closed, hierarchical organization.”
The open letter belies turmoil at an organization that at its conception was seen as the potential dawn of a new movement fusing science with advocacy. Instead, letter signatories and other past and present volunteers have told a story of an organization unable to provide clarity on its day-to-day work as well as its next steps.
“It’s not really one individual but the way the organization is structured,” Amber Ying, a social media volunteer with the March and one of the open letter’s signatories, told Earther. “There’s very little communication about what is going with daily operations.”
Beyond the daily grind, the letter signatories also say there are deeper questions about the finances of the organization. There is no public information about what’s happening with the $1.3 million raised by the organization through April 30, the donations that have come in since or, until recently, who is being paid by the national organization.
In the wake of the open letter, the March for Science updated its people page to reflect that it has nine employees. It does not include all their roles in the organization, though, which stands somewhat in contrast to the transparency the open letter signatories called for.
One of those paid staffers is Caroline Weinberg, one of the national co-chairs, who has been paid as the interim executive director since late August. The letter signatories said that hiring Weinberg goes against promises made that the co-chairs would have a role on the board but not take paid positions.
Weinberg told Earther that the search for a permanent executive director will begin December “if not earlier” and more details will become available on the organization’s financials soon.
“Our monthly expenses are $36,870 going towards staff, digital advocacy tools, legal fees, insurance, and things like website hosting and email accounts,” she said. “Our budget will be released this week as part of our c3 application.”
Fights about inclusivity have also sapped the March of some of its energy. The March first presented itself as apolitical, which rankled some scientists who view science and politics as intimately entwined. After authoring a diversity statement, Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker accused the bubbling movement of compromising “its goals with anti-science PC/identity politics/hard-left rhetoric.”
The letter signatories and other scientists also suggest the March continues to push diversity issues to the side. The March for Science came under fire from the right for being too focused on identity politics, and swerved in response to those critiques in a way that alienated researchers who view science, diversity and justice as intrinsically linked.
Those issues have led a number of scientists Earther spoke with to focus their efforts advocating for science and equality in science elsewhere.
“The Science March could have been a moment where the public and the scientific community came together to redefine what science for all would look like, but I just haven’t seen any concerted efforts to shape that kind of a conversation into a coherent vision I can rally behind,” Maryam Zaringhalam, a molecular biologist who marched in April, told Earther.
Zaringhalam is one of the leaders of 500 Women Scientists, another viral grassroots effort that sprung out of an open letter about more inclusivity in science in the wake of Trump’s inauguration. The group initially supported the March for Science and offered to help organizers address diversity after the march was repeatedly criticized for tweets that seemed to make light of serious issues.
“Whenever we tried to offer constructive criticism, we were met with defensiveness, which didn’t help shape the March in a way that aligned with 500 Women Scientists’ mission,” Zaringhalam said.
That led 500 Women Scientists to eventually dissolve their partnership with the march. Others who see the explicit link between science, politics, and diversity also view the March as still failing to represent the reality that science doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
“Honestly, I can’t tell what the March for Science is up to these days,” Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a theoretical astrophysicist at the University of Washington and early March critic, told Earther. “I have no sense that anything has come out of the March, except a lot of clarity on how American higher education has failed to contextualize for students of science the relationship between science and society.”
All of these issues have come to a head again at the six-month mark of the March. They also come at a time of increasing politicization of science with the Trump administration rolling back environmental protections, deleting references to climate change from websites and pushing the travel ban, which inherently harms scientists and collaborations.
It’s a time when civil society, including scientists, should in theory be more engaged than ever with these issues. But the March doesn’t appear to have seized that opportunity, leaving the letter signatories and others frustrated.
After the March, organizers coordinated a week of intense planning to figure out what was next. The national organization’s social media channels kept tweeting and posting but the site wasn’t updated and until recently, still including information on the Washington, D.C. march route itself, according to Weinberg.
While the group drafted proposals in the early summer based on planning sessions and a listening tour, it’s unclear what’s happened with them since to Ying and other letter signatories. In the meantime, many local chapters have taken actions on their own, with little guidance from the national level.
“From my conversations, satellite march leaders have disengaged because they feel time and effort to shape the organization post-march has been ignored,” Aaron Huertas, the former national communications lead for the March who also signed the letter, told Earther. “Unfortunately, the national organization has left a lot of that momentum on the table and it has withered because they haven’t approached it from a grassroots level.”
Despite the unrest, the March for Science still has the power to make an impact in the science community and the letter’s signatories believe the letter can be part of that process.
“The systemic communications issues, sidelining, all this is something you’ll find anywhere,” Ying said. “But knowing it is such a common problem, we should be able to talk about it openly and improve our movement going forward.”
Ying and Huertas both also advocated for the local chapters of the March to have a greater say in what comes next, and that there are already examples of what that could look like. The Houston chapter, for example, is putting on an event to help schools and donate blood in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Ying said the national organization could make a meaningful impact by helping financially support events like this in other local chapters and having a clearer message.
“We never felt like we had a single point of contact at the national level,” Sasha Luks-Morgan, a PhD student at the University of Utah who helped organize the Salt Lake City march, told Earther. “Watching all of the debates about the importance of diversity from afar was extremely disheartening. It felt like the national organizers could never decide who they were, or what they wanted to do.”
The national organization could also make some headway if it chooses to wade into the politics, an area it has tried to avoid by broad messaging about advocating for science. But that message may be falling on deaf ears on the right.
Matthew Motta, a political science PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota, told Earther science—specifically rejecting science and expertise around issues like climate change—was on the minds of Republican voters in 2016 but it wasn’t for Democrats. Motta’s research shows that the March for Science may have polarized opinions on science further, with liberals becoming more supportive of science and scientists while conservatives became more distrustful of experts (though interestingly, not science itself).
Increasing polarization isn’t exactly ideal, but Motta said his findings show that the door could be open for March organizers to play a role in lifting up Democratic candidates in 2018 midterms.
“We see this growth of scientists and academics running for office happening now,” Motta said. “That’s an interesting development showing there’s this express link between science and politics. So if the March for Science can say things like throw your support behind these specific candidates, it could make a dent.”
It’s still a big tbd if the March for Science goes down that road even as other groups ramp up their actions to support scientists and advocate for equality. That includes the aforementioned 500 Women Scientists, as well as groups like 314 Action that have sprung up to support scientists running for office, and Science for the People, which focuses on the links between social justice and science. The March may have lost its opportunity to be the center of the burgeoning movement of scientists trying to shape policy, but it still has the chance to be a part of it. And the movement will go on regardless.
This post was updated to include comments from the Sasha Luks-Morgan, one of the Salt Lake City march organizers.