From the ivory tower to the streets

On 22 April, people in more than 400 cities around the world will take to the streets during the March for Science. The organisation feels that the position of science is being weakened by events such as Trump’s election, Brexit and the increasing number of parents who do not vaccinate their kids. They want to show that science is ‘not just an opinion’.
Text and photo by Simone Harmsen / Translation by Alain Reniers

‘Science no longer has the role in society it once had,’ Maarten Frens says. He is a professor of neuroscience at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. Together with seven fellow scientists, he is the driving force behind the Dutch version of the March, which will be held in Amsterdam. Frens: ‘We see how science’s role is under pressure. There is less faith in the knowledge resulting from the scientific method, both politically and among private citizens, like climate sceptics, parents who don’t vaccinate their children and how immigration figures are being manipulated.’

International community

Met de inmenging van de politiek in de Nederlandse wetenschap valt het mee, geeft Frens toe. ‘Al hadden we hier onlangs de motie van Duisenberg en Straus.’ Hij doelt daarmee op VVD-kamerleden Pieter Duisenberg en Karin Straus, die onderzoek wilden laten doen naar de politieke voorkeuren van Nederlandse academici.

We’re not against anything. We’re pro-science.

Nevertheless, the March in Amsterdam will not focus solely on the situation in the Netherlands. ‘At an international level, there are many places where science is under political pressure, such as Erdoğan closing universities, Trump cancelling subsidy programmes, and Hungary, where universities are under pressure.’ The purpose of the march in Amsterdam is to provide support to foreign academics. ‘The scientific community is international. There is not a department in the Netherlands without foreign researchers and there’s a lot of cooperation with other, foreign departments.’

Examples include Veronica Allen and Andrea Soto Padilla, two PhD students in Groningen. Allen is from the US and Soto Padilla is Mexican. They put themselves forward as volunteers and are trying to encourage as many people in Groningen as possible to go the Museumplein in Amsterdam. Even though the term ‘march’ indicates otherwise, neuroscientist Soto Padilla says it is not a demonstration. ‘We’re not against anything. We’re pro-science.’ After all, Allen and Soto Padilla see how science is losing its good reputation all around them.

The uncertainty of science

They feel that this is, in part, due to the fast information flow of the 21st century. People are used to absorbing a lot of information quickly via social media. It can be difficult to assess all of this information. Soto Padilla: ‘Scientists live in a world of constant uncertainty; we’re used to it. If my research shows something else than my colleague’s research, then we will not argue about who’s right. We will deliberate and try to find out why our results are different and start a third experiment.’

‘Science needs to give back’, according to organisers Veronica Allen (left) and Andrea Soto Padilla.

She understands that a lot of people have a different idea of science. To them, it is difficult to place all of the different reports in the media that contradict each other at times. One day, a substance is carcinogenic, the next day it is not. One study says saturated fats will make you fat, but a second study says it will not.

Apart from the media’s search for sensation, the academic world is also to blame. ‘I think it’s also connected to the pressure to publish’, says Soto Padilla. Together with Allen, she hopes to show people that scientific results and positions do not come out of nowhere: A long and careful process precedes them.

For the entire family

Frens emphasises that the march on 22 April is not intended solely for academics. ‘I think we will mostly draw in science enthusiasts, but also people who have sympathy for science but don’t yet know how it all works exactly.’ The organisers hope to teach people more about ‘the scientific method’. After an event at the Museumplein with various speakers, visitors can be informed about topics like vaccination and climate change in various tents. Frens: ‘It is an event for the entire family.’

You cannot just shout down from your ivory tower.

Whether or not the organisation will reach this broad target audience remains to be seen. A social media campaign is used to get people enthusiastic, and because train traffic is suspended on Saturday, buses will leave from Groningen to the Museumplein. ‘Up to now, not a lot of people have registered. Then again, it is a long trip. My neighbours from Hoogezand will not sit in a bus for two hours to go to Amsterdam for such an event,’ Allen admits.

Frens is matter-of-fact about the march’s impact: ‘We don’t think that people’s eyes will have been fully opened after 22 April; we need to work hard to solidify science’s position. We feel there is a role for politics, society and science itself to play. The latter must substantiate and show what the scientific method means and why science is not just some opinion.’

Science needs to give back

Astronomer Allen also thinks that scientists have a responsibility. ‘During my education, I was told it was our duty that we communicate about our work,’ she says. ‘After all, we’re paid largely with tax money. You cannot just shout down from your ivory tower; you need to give back.’

She is actively looking for ways to introduce as many people as possible to her academic field. She works as a volunteer during open days at the observatory and gives astronomy presentations. ‘I need to work some more on my Dutch, but I’d love to teach about astronomy at my daughter’s school.’ Soto Padilla also contributes by joining science projects for school students. Moreover, she started a popular science website on neuroscience together with some Mexican colleagues.

Soto Padilla and Allen hope to use the march to improve science’s image. ‘The image a lot of people have of science differs strongly from reality,’ Soto Padilla says. ‘We’re not all crazy old white men in lab coats. I hope to make scientists human again with the march.’



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