Science Riot is proud to be providing speakers and programming support for March for Science satellite events in Colorado Springs and Little Rock. This article was expanded from notes taken during initial meetings with march organizers. Printable PDF is available for download.
Only 1 in 5 scientists do outreach for the adult public. How many will actually march for science?
…and other challenges faced by March For Science organizers.
Like many scientists, I have often lamented that only half of Americans accept human evolution, a third believe that astrology is scientific, and 1 in 4 disagree that the Earth revolves around the Sun1. This problem has been getting worse for as long as we’ve tracked it and, like avoiding the dentist, much of the science community has been afraid to know how bad things have really gotten.
An overwhelming majority of scientists (84%2) feel that limited public knowledge about science is a serious concern. But despite describing science communication as a duty, only 21% of scientists actually participate in any form of outreach or science communication3. That includes interviews, blogs, and even social media. This March may be the first time that many of them have ventured out of the lab at all.
“…Maybe the public isn’t the problem.”
Can you name a single living scientist?
Because 81% of Americans, right now, can’t name one4. As somebody who has studied science communication trends in the US, someone who should have seen this before, it was a staggering statistic.
Consider the math behind this problem; four fifths of the American public can’t name a single living scientists when there are 6 million professional scientists in this country5. Don’t scientists have friends? If you include STEM degrees now working in other fields the number of scientists balloons to more than 21 million. That’s 15% of the entire US population. Statistically, not even our parents know that we’re scientists.
It’s probably time the the science community does a little soul-searching and considers that maybe the public isn’t the problem.
Bewildered STEM professionals around the country are quickly mobilizing satellite marches in 360 cities6. Local ad hoc committees are meeting over beers right now to solve the immense logistical and social challenges of organizing a city-wide march on the fly. Yet the first and most terrifying challenge is the one that they are least prepared to solve; how do we get scientists to show up?
Who cares about science?
Like many improvised marches so far in 2017, organizers of the Science March find themselves grasping at the straws of an unorganized and dispersed base. Building a robust coalition in a matter of weeks may seem insurmountable to organizers getting their first taste of grassroots activism. Hesitation among prominent science organizations only makes matters worse.
Many scientists are outraged and under duress and will show up because they have to do something, but relying on individuals won’t be enough. The next challenge is bringing our institutions and organizations to bear.
To do this we first have to recognize that even mention of the word activism is distasteful to STEM professionals used to a position of respectability that has until now been above the fray. They have valid existential concerns about what politicization would mean for their funding and reputation. Unfortunately, these board members fail to admit that their findings will continue to be polarized with or without their consent – unless we can exert public pressure to restore respect for the scientific process.
We have to reject the privilege of inaction and recognize that empiricism is worth defending. Respect for evidence needs to be demanded and not merely hoped for. This March for Science depends on solidarity from America’s valuable and often unseen scientific institutions.
Universities, organizations, and industry who rely on public funding were skittish about public endorsements before they were directly in the crosshairs. They are understandably afraid of how their participation will be framed and interpreted alongside so many inappropriate protest signs. The solution is empowering them to frame their participation in no uncertain terms and insulate them from criticism.
“We are _____ marching for _____.”
They don’t need to state what they are against, or acknowledge any other sentiments expressed during the nonpartisan March, they only need to reaffirm their own mission statement;
“-to remember the role science plays in our society and to support scientific innovation and discovery, and the people and programs that make it possible,” American Geophysical Union CEO, Chris McEntee.7
“-to communicate the importance, value and beauty of science.” AAAS CEO, Rush Holt.8
Attracting a wide base of support also means reaching beyond low-hanging fruit of narrow science organizations. We have to embrace tech companies, conservationists, hobbyists, and makers – but none of this will go far enough to engage the unengaged.
Most of all we need gatekeepers to non-science communities who are not participants in science but it’s beneficiaries. This includes civic and special interest organizations; especially churches and charities. Would they march to end cancer? Or for clean drinking water? Ask them and find out.
How to put on a good show
Only when you’re confident that every science lover in your city will hear about your event can you put the cart behind the horse and plan the rally. This is also a good time to make sure someone filed those city permits and coordinated your route.
March for Science organizers will have to balance two seemingly disparate programming goals; galvanizing the science community (in the broadest possible terms), and appealing to the public for their support. One is motivating adults to take action, and the other is humanizing science and scientists for American families.
Keep in mind that for most non-scientists, “science” implies kid-friendly. I can’t tell you how many adult-only science events we’ve held at taverns late on a Friday night only to have families appear looking confused by all the alcohol. Be sure to include attractions and speaker that appeal to a broad range of ages and interests. Can you join forces with Earth-Day activities already planned in your town? Host an impromptu science festival in the morning leading up to the march?
Keep in mind that you are not professionals when it comes to the performance arts. Hire a professional A/V production company to ensure that the entire assembly and bystanders can hear you. Set up a stage and projectors if you can, then hire a professional MC to keep the crowd fired up and ready to go.
Lastly, make sure there’s an after-party planned somewhere nearby to connect the movers and shakers of your city.
You’ve made the plans and worked out a program. But how do we ensure more than a momentary catharsis for the science community? How do we create lasting engagement after the March?
First, celebrate showing up.
Remember that even among scientists the baseline for public engagement is zero. Your attendees should be rewarded with profuse gratitude for donating their time in support of science. After all, dopamine is free.
By showing up they have created a de-facto science community that did not previously exist. Have follow-up programs ready to go, because your audience wants to know what else they can do. How about a letter-writing party, or communication workshops (be it storytelling, improv comedy, or even toastmasters)?
These make a lot of sense if we consider how 50% of scientists describe themselves as “not well equipped”, or worse, to discuss their research with a lay audience and 73% report having no training in public speaking9. At a minimum you can plan a pro-science potluck to continue the local discussion. The important thing is to book and announce these dates leading up to and during the March.
By showing up they have created a de-facto science community that did not previously exist.
Emphasize that the definition of “scientist” is not restricted to those conducting research or engaged in academia. It includes anyone in STEM-related career fields from doctors and nurses to pilots and computer programmers. Beyond professionals and degree holders the term also includes hobbyists from conservationists to garage workshop tinkerers.
You have gathered your people, and you may never again gather so many of them in one place. How can you leverage this opportunity to keep them engaged when the March is over? Find a way to stay connected and recruit a significant number of volunteers towards collecting this information during the event.
Can you keep up with a monthly newsletter? How about planning regular meet-ups? Think even bigger – how about soliciting volunteers for a speaker’s bureau of local scientific communicators?
Perhaps most importantly, encourage every science-lover present to sit down with someone else and talk about why science matters to them.
- National Science Foundation. 2016. Science & Engineering Indicators Report, Ch 7. (NSB-2016-1).
- Pew Research Center. 2015. “Public and Scientists Views on Science and Society.”
- Ecklund, Elaine Howard, Sarah A. James, and Anne E. Lincoln. 2012. “How Academic Biologists and Physicists View Science Outreach.” Plos ONE 7, no. 5: 1-5.
- A Research!America survey of U.S. adults. 2016. http://www.researchamerica.org/polls-and-publications
Kyle Sanders (firstname.lastname@example.org) is executive director of Science Riot Inc., a Colorado-based 501(c)(3) that produces and consults on adult-oriented science programming. Science Riot is proud to be assisting the Colorado Springs March for Science rally.