Testing the Testers: How Scientist-Activists Persuaded Their Peers to March

The March for Science in April was a coup for organizers: 600 marches around the world; an estimated 1.3 million marchers; and more than 300 organizational partners, from the Paleontological Society to the Center for Biological Diversity to the Consortium of Social Science Associations. But for one of the organizers, the biggest coup was finding the right messaging to unite a group of people and organizations famously allergic to the appearance of partiality.

“This myth of neutrality had hamstrung science from impacting political debate,” veteran organizer Beka Economopoulos told Civicist. “We helped put that dog to rest…we’re no longer talking about whether or not it’s appropriate for scientists to speak politically.”

Economopoulos was among the first to jump in to help organize the March for Science, and has been working at the intersection of art, science, and politics in her own organizing work for several years now. In 2014, she co-founded the pop-up Natural History Museum, a roving project housed in a 15-passenger bus that makes pit stops at established art, science, and natural history museums to help those venerable institutions create programs and exhibits that are of interest to the communities they serve.

Economopoulos said she has found success in engaging scientists and science institutions in the issues of today by encouraging them to be more “relevant.” She has found the idea of “relevance” to be far more palatable to scientists than the notion of being “political”—or worse, partisan. She put this deep well of knowledge to use by helping shape the social media strategy for the March for Science.

“Finding frames that are aspirational can open doors rather than open a can of worms,” she said.

Economopoulos said that two rallies organized by the Natural History Museum and ClimateTruth in the months after the election but before the march functioned as “living laboratories” to test what messages scientists might be willing to embrace in the April march.

The December “Rally to Stand Up For Science” coincided (intentionally) with the annual American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference. A couple months later Economopoulos also helped organize a second rally of the same name in Boston during the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science conference. Approximately 500 people, including many scientists, participated in the December rally. The Natural History Museum reported attendance at the February event crept up to 3,000, although media reports were both more modest and more vague, describing the crowd as in the “hundreds.”

Both events received heavy media attention. A Guardian headline blared “This is not normal – climate researchers take to the streets to protect science.” In February, one in Scientific American declared “Politics-Wary Scientists Wade into the Trump Fray at Boston Rally.” In spite of the media attention, Economopoulos said the scientists who participated saw little blowback, which she believes was helpful in persuading AGU and AAAS to back the March for Science. The two organizations declared their support on February 23, just a few days after the Boston rally.

“Two of the first organizations to sign on were the AGU and AAAS—perhaps because we mobilized their members,” Economopoulos explained to Civicist. “To get those 800 pound gorillas to sign on in the early stage—and [after] the rest followed.”

After a few major scientific societies signed up, march organizers started reaching out to other groups to broaden the coalition. Valorie Aquino, an anthropologist and one of the three march co-chairs, said that they reached out to a number of different organizations that hold science in high esteem.

“Science is under attack or rejected by policy makers,” she told Civicist. “That really resonated with diverse communities for reasons that were locally relevant.” Aquino said they also emphasized the idea that “science is embedded in the fabric of our society, [and] the need to support science in all of our day-to-day lives is critical.”

Since this spring, Economopoulos has taken a step back from the March for Science to focus on the Natural History Museum, but other march organizers are focused on spinning the March for Science into a fully-fledged organization. Although the organizational structure has yet to be set in stone, it will likely blend elements of a traditional nonprofit with a central authority with the elements of a grassroots, networked model, as offshoots of the national march continue to organize in their local community.

“Our goal for where the march organization goes are the same as what they were for the march: Advocating for science in society and policy, and making sure that we make sure that science is inclusive for everyone and serves everyone,” Caroline Weinberg, a co-chair of the March for Science, told Civicist. “As a national organization some of the resources we can provide is to make make it easier for communities to connect with scientists, [to provide] guides for [hosting] events and talks, how to get scientists into the community, [and] putting forth things that make it easier to implement those things.”