March for science – a good idea?

He doesn’t want to fund research from those he doesn’t like. He wants academics to present their papers to the government before publishing. Important positions are given to those who are in line with his policies: Donald Trump’s attacks on free science have researchers fearing for their future and their country. For months, some of them have been saving data.

Some say it is time to take to the streets: We need to demonstrate for freedom, democracy and free information! Hold on, say others: A March for Science as planned in April might not be a good idea.

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Pro: "I was shocked by the weak official statements"

"Academics face a dilemma: Most of us are part of an elite that has benefited from globalization, which Trump and his supporters are protesting against. In many quarters, universities are regarded as disconnected and out of touch. This means that even our best-supported and reasoned arguments are seen as biased and are unlikely to convince many in this so-called "post-fact" era.

Nina Hall was born in New Zealand, has a PhD from the University of Oxford and is now a lecturer in global governance at the Hertie School of Governance. Among other topics, she conducts research on global refugee and migration governance and is collaborating with a global network of digital activists. © Hertie School of Governance

Academics must try to connect and communicate effectively to a broader audience in society and foster an open, free and rational exchange of ideas. I am concerned, though, that academia will remain insulated and won't respond to the challenges posed by Trump and other populists, who seek to stir up fear and division and to govern by misinformation.

In February, the International Studies Association (ISA) annual conference took place in Baltimore, bringing together over 6,000 international relations scholars. I had hoped we would discuss how to respond to Trump’s policies and populism in our own contexts. Instead, I was shocked by the weak official statements: First the ISA council claimed incorrectly that they could not take a partisan position on Trump’s executive order banning travel from select, Muslim-majority countries. They then modified their position and condemned the executive order after many academics urged them to do so. But unlike the American Political Science Association and the American Anthropological Association, they did not strongly urge President Trump to rescind it.

I was also surprised by the ISA’s inability to react rapidly and flexibly and to organize space for debate. Instead, it was left to small groups of academics to organize panels and protests themselves, which were not well-advertised by the conference organizers. For most attendees, the conference proceeded normally, despite the fact that approximately 170 people had either boycotted the event or could not attend due to travel concerns as a result of the executive order. We can’t pretend that it is business as usual. We need to take action and build bridges between academia and the rest of society and not just build walls."

The wrong reason

Contra: "Marching for science might be a bad move"

"As a young scientist, I should be delighted about the March for Science. But it might be a bad move the way it’s planned. Even though the basic idea is honorable, I see three major dangers: First of all, I’m concerned by the politicization of science. Forming an alliance against Trump might strengthen the Republican narrative: Researchers would become lobbyists instead of being nonpartisan, as they claim.

Second, delivering truths is just part of the purpose of science. In times of fake news and alternative facts, science is depicted as an objective authority to deliver the truth. In a broader sense, facts are objective, verifiable observations. Hypotheses and theories, though, seek to relate those facts to each other. They ultimately can’t be verified, just falsified.

As a graduate student at the University of Oxford, Johannes Müller studies evidence-based policy evaluation. His primary focus is the conviction that politics should be based on science. © Johannes Müller

An example: It’s a fact that the earth’s temperatures are rising rapidly. That global warming is accelerated by humanity is merely a theory. Even though most climate scientists are convinced that something has to be done quickly due to their research results, it can't be conclusively proven. Unlike alternative facts, there are alternative hypotheses.

Thirdly, an inaccurate understanding of Evidence-Based Policymaking (EBP) is prevailing. An impression has emerged that the opposite of Trump’s policy would be a policy that’s based on evidence and rational analysis. But that’s misleading. The goal of EBP is to collect and communicate evidence to justify political decisions. The job of democratically elected parties, however, is to decide based on hypotheses and priorities.

I’m not saying scientists shouldn’t be political. We need our hypotheses to be heard by politicians. Just because there are competing theories doesn’t mean all should be treated equally. Nor does it mean  that political decisions should be based on faith. We need to celebrate successes and progress and we need to fight for transparency, independence and integrity. But Trump shouldn’t be the reason."

Edited by: Alina Schadwinkel