What I Learned Marching for Science in Geneva

There were nearly 40 organizers for the March for Science, Geneva, that was on Saturday in the Jardin Anglais. By the time the march started (a bit late), at 11h30, we estimated around 800 people had joined us.

March for Science, Geneva. 22 April 2017.

The experience of organizing an event like this was a first for me, and there are so many things that I have taken away from the experience of these past few (intense) weeks.

// Scientists have just as much passion for doing good things for the world as they are about making discoveries.

The “typical day” of a scientist does not exist. The types of experiments that a cancer biologist does are different from the types of experiments that a theoretical physicist will do. The types of collaborations that exist for an archaeologist are different than the types of collaborations that exist for an organic chemist. Field work for a geologist is different from field work for a natural products chemist. But in all the ways that our day-to-day goings on are different, we are all driven by something in common: the scientific method. We are passionate about asking questions, developing experiments and collecting data to answer those questions, and interpreting the information to understand how it fits into the bigger picture of our research. This passion drives us to find answers every day in our labs (or offices, or the field).

This passion is not limited to scientific research. By and large, in this wonderful group of organizers for the March for Science, Geneva, we were motivated to create an event that might have a chance at having a positive impact in the world. Switzerland is unique in the scientific world because there is a lot of support for science, not only from the public but also from the government. The dedication of the Swiss government to science and innovation is clear, and science funding is not threatened for institutions and researchers in Switzerland. However, there are many researchers around the world who feel an increasing struggle to find research funding. Our march was motivated, in part, to support researchers in other places in the world who struggle to find money to do research. It was motivated because each scientist has a part to contribute to the advancement of knowledge, and improving our understanding of how the world works. This knowledge has the potential to unlock a world of innovation to improve the life (and quality of life) of people across the globe.

// There is a beautifully diverse world of scientists in Switzerland.

When I was looking out over the crowd at the rally before the march, it was wonderful to see a sea of many different faces. The first item of business for the March for Science, Geneva, organizing team was to craft our mission and vision statements. We spent weeks going over every bullet point, every word, to make sure that we had a message that we could all support. It was not an easy thing (with nearly 40 different voices in the mix), but we all viewed it as an important first step to shape how the March for Science, Geneva, would look, and how it might be different from other marches around the world. One message that was very important to us (that myself and one of the other organizers, James Beacham, spoke about to reporter Serena Tinari in the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland) was that everyone felt they could participate in the march. Inclusion was a key message in our planning meetings. While clearly there were political motivations for the march, we did our best to be as non-partisan as possible.

Marchers start to gather before the stage. Photo credit: Clara Nellist, our social media guru.

I cannot say that science and politics have nothing to do with one another. Science is often used to motivate policy decisions, and politics impacts science research by determining funding levels, immigration policies for skilled researchers, etc. However, scientific fact is neither Republican nor Democratic. Data produced from research studies are neither inherently members of En Marche! or the Front National. Science and politics are linked, but science and political persuasion do not need to be.

// There is still more work to do.

In our group of organizers, I’m sure that each of us chose a part of the vision statement that was the key message. For me, this was the part that resonated the most with me:

We acknowledge that history is filled with cautionary examples in which science has been invoked or used to discriminate based on race, gender, religion, sexual identity and socioeconomic class. To that end, we explicitly reject all contemporary and future attempts to co-opt the methods of science to oppress or marginalize any group of people.

However, I would like to take it a step further. It is not enough to say that science should not be used to marginalize a group of people, because science itself marginalizes people. There is an underrepresentation of women in science and technology. In academia, women receive less funding and less money to start their research labs. In science and technology, women make up less than 25% of the workforce. People of color make up even less of the scientific workforce (in and out of academia), and endure discrimination and hostility.

We need to encourage diversity in science, not only with our words but with our actions. In many countries, the March for Science was started as a political movement to shine a light on politicians who are seeking to harm the scientific process or transparency in scientific results. It is now time for us to hold up a mirror to ourselves and see how we can use this momentum to now move underrepresented, marginalized scientists forward in a meaningful way and encourage a new, diverse generation of scientists who will shape the research of the future.

// If you have ideas on how we can make science a more diverse and inclusive place, please share your ideas in our Suggestion Box or send an email to courtney[at]sciencedailydose.com. For more information on how to get in touch, please visit the Contact page.