With Trump in Power, Scientists Turned to Activism. Then Things Got Complicated.

For years science has been attacked from the right. Now it’s getting hit from the left.

On a gray and drizzling late-April morning, some 20,000 people rallied in Cal Anderson Park for March for Science Seattle—one of hundreds of such actions across the globe that day. A lineup of speakers stepped onto a small raised platform, including Jay Inslee. The governor told the crowd that he wasn’t a scientist, but he nonetheless wanted to declare a new law of thermodynamics. “For every anti-science action coming out of Washington, D.C., in the next three years,” he bellowed, to a crescendo of righteous applause, “there will be an equal and opposite pro-science reaction in the state of Washington. And we will emerge victorious!” As he stepped off the stage, a member of the crowd cried, “We love you, Jay!”

Just then, an activist clad in jeans and a black jacket climbed up and took his place. Unlike Inslee’s, her entrance wasn’t scheduled, nor was her speech. She began by first acknowledging that the land that they were gathered on belonged to the Duwamish, then invoked the same bitter outrage that Inslee did: the outrage many people feel about the massive cuts to science funding proposed by President Donald Trump.

“This anger and fear is real,” she read, her voice clear and firm, “and there are also many people who have been dealing with attacks like this for much longer than these past three months. Undocumented communities, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated folks, unhoused communities, disabled people, queer and trans and gender-nonconforming folks …”

At that moment, event organizers cut the mic. They asked if she could keep her comments to a minute or two, noting that timing was tight and that they needed to allow each scheduled speaker their allotted four minutes. She refused and, after the mic had been turned back on, said, “I’m going to continue reading.” Some members of the audience shouted support—“Let her speak!” and “Keep going!”—while others seemed frustrated, murmuring, “Turn it off.” Then three Seattle police officers who had been working security at the city-permitted event came to the stage and carried her away. March for Science Seattle organizers say they didn’t ask for her arrest.

News of the interruption quickly spread across social media. Organizers of the Facebook group Block the Bunker, with which the speaker was affiliated, posted a video of the scene with a message: “This is what white liberal racism looks like at the March for Science. … Fascism doesn’t just come in the form of Donald Trump, y’all.” The full text of the speech, including a large portion that the activist was not allowed to read to the crowd, was pasted below the message. In it, activists accuse organizers of the March for Science Seattle of repeatedly shutting out people of color and social justice groups from the organizing process. Another local group, Women of Color Speak Out, made similar claims. Racism, sexism, white supremacy, and the harms of capitalism, these groups both said, aggressively play out in the sciences—and in the organizing of marches, including this one. And to ignore that is to perpetuate such injustices.

“We’re not against science,” says Zarna Joshi, an organizer with Women of Color Speak Out who co-authored a list of “strongly worded” suggestions that was delivered to March organizers weeks before the event in an effort, she and others say, to make it more equitable. “We are against Western, white male-dominated science.” Fundamentally, she argues, scientists “will talk a lot about how they’re ‘evidence-based’ people, except that they get to choose what gets researched. They get to choose what data there is on any given thing.” She points to indigenous cultures that have long understood agriculture in a way that doesn’t “take more than what nature herself is able to bear,” and to centuries of Indian knowledge about yoga, meditation, and nutrition that existed long before the West began publishing studies in scientific journals. She says the local March for Science leadership “refused to be accountable to people of color” during the lead-up to the march, and that—in addition to major philosophical and political disagreements with the organizers’ approach—is why one activist decided to take the mic, and why others, including herself, refused to attend.

March for Science Seattle (MFSS) organizers disagree, arguing that an array of people, including people of color and scientists of color, were involved in both organizing the March and speaking at the event. While the three most active MFSS organizers were white, they say that they are conscious of the fact that two-thirds of the country’s scientists and engineers are white and that scientific institutions can and do demonstrate racism and exclusion. They say they sought to make these issues a deliberate part of the conversation at the March.

“Science may be a method, and science may be immune to things like bias, sexism, and racism, but scientific institutions sure are not,” says Miles Greb, one of the lead organizers.

He and social justice activists agree on the latter point, but not the former—and they vehemently disagree on how to effectively address either. It’s a highly charged conflict that played out in other ways during the lead-up to other Marches for Science in other cities, sparking fierce criticism and debate. Perhaps the highest-profile example came after national organizers posted a tweet stating that “Colonization, racism, immigration, native rights, sexism, ableism, queer-, trans-, intersex-phobia, & econ justice are scientific issues,” and then deleted it. Some scientists and activists were infuriated by that deletion, while others saw the initial tweet as reason to call the March “a farce.” Organizers responded by drafting and publishing a new diversity statement, and then redrafting it three more times. Dr. Stephani Page, who was part of the national March for Science steering committee, launched the hashtag #MarginSci to address the marginalization of people of color that she and others saw so grossly exhibited during the organizing process in Washington, D.C., and across the country.

Seattle’s controversy is just as complex, thorny, and painful. It has exposed the cracks in a local left that is both galvanized and divided, raising questions not only about racism and privilege, but also about how we define what “science” is, how we define what a “march” should be, and thus how we might ever hope to define a March for Science.

This isn’t just an exercise in retrospection; interactions between scientific and activist communities promise to be a common part of our political landscape over the coming years. Trump’s recent decision to pull the United States from the Paris Agreement assures as much. “The march is over,” the national March for Science website now reads, “and the movement has begun.”

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A protester is taken off the stage at April’s science march. Photo by Alex Garland.

Donald Trump’s war against science officially kicked off in 2012, with a now-infamous tweet asserting that climate change had been orchestrated by the Chinese. But the Republican Party’s active opposition to science—in particular, climate science—stretches back a good deal further. Following his election in 2000, former President George W. Bush refused to implement the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, arguing that the agreement “would have wrecked our economy.” A concerted effort by fossil fuel interests and conservative think tanks over the past decade have made it almost impossible to be a successful Republican politician today while also acknowledging humanity’s role in climate change. In 2009, Congress gridlocked on climate policy, and during the Obama administration, Republican attorneys general across the country lined up to sue over environmental regulations.

Trump found an eager audience during his presidential campaign with both anti-regulation coal miners and climate skeptics. In early December, the then-President-elect made good on his campaign rhetoric and nominated former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency—a man well-known to the scientific community as an avowed climate-change skeptic who had sued the Environmental Protection Agency 14 separate times. It was too much.

On Inauguration Day, inspired by both the Trump presidency and the Women’s March planned for the next day, one science supporter put forth a suggestion on Reddit: “There needs to be a Scientist’s March on Washington.” That comment is credited with sparking an entire movement, which flared up within days, fueled by swift, early actions by the new administration that did not play well among scientists and environmentalists. Less than an hour after Trump took office, a web page devoted to climate change disappeared from the White House’s website (in its place now is a page that promises to eliminate “harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan”). On January 24, after issuing a temporary freeze on all EPA grants and a social media gag order on all EPA employees, an odd scene played out on Twitter, perhaps best encapsulated by the dystopian headline: “Badlands National Park Twitter account goes rogue, starts tweeting scientific facts.” In late April, the EPA’s page on climate change was cleared and replaced with a message reading “This page is being updated … to reflect EPA’s priorities under the leadership of President Trump and Administrator Pruitt.”

This—all of this—is what prompted the scientific community to organize a march, says Greb, who grew up in rural California and now lives in Seattle, writing comic books about science, completing a bioengineering degree, and working a day job as a programmer.

Greb started the March for Science Seattle social media accounts almost immediately after the national organizers started theirs—on January 24—and was in close contact with them from the beginning. He acknowledges that the clear catalyst was indeed President Trump, now the walking, endlessly tweeting exemplar of the country’s cavernous partisan divide. But Greb also insists that “we wanted to make sure that the March was nonpartisan because we wanted to make [it about] the idea that science should be a centrist issue, and for everybody. That doesn’t mean nonpolitical—a nuance that I think is lost on some people.”

He says he wanted it to unify people in a show of political engagement. It was intended to be a family-friendly celebration of the value of objective facts and the scientific method—which, again, are immutable concepts, he says, and separate from the potentially biased institutions that produce them.

Some activists “want us to be a far-left movement,” Greb says, “which I can understand, but I think that’s a mistake in tactic.” For Greb, the hope was to walk the line between anti-Trump and pro-Trump, between Democrat and Republican, and not between Seattle’s center-left and far-left. “I grew up in a small town. I know a lot of conservative people who don’t feel represented by their government,” he says. “They should also have a voice. They shouldn’t be bullied out of the movement because they’re fiscal conservatives.” That was the consensus opinion of national organizers as well, Greb says, not just Seattle ones.

In the parable of March for Science Seattle, these ideas—especially the one about science being severable from human bias—could be viewed as original sins.

Several people now operating under the banner of Block the Bunker—a name carried over from the successful protests against a new North Seattle precinct for the Seattle Police Department—reached out within days of the MFSS Facebook group being formed to express their frustration. “By marching for science, we are marching for social justice. Let’s not forget that,” one commenter posted to the group on January 26. Greb replied, “Although this march has the focus of science, we are taking much care to be diverse,” and he promised respect for all.

Two days later, another commenter railed against the idea of nonpartisanship: “Frankly, I don’t understand the desire to keep this protest nonpartisan. Who do we think we’re fooling with this line of reasoning? Am I supposed to believe that it’s purely coincidental that this group formed immediately after Trump put a gag order on the scientific arms of our federal government? … Make no mistake about it—this is very much a partisan issue.”

The commenter went on to argue that “we can’t pretend these scientific issues exist in a vacuum,” and that advocacy for immigrant rights, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, disabled rights, and the rights of other groups are inextricable from any advocacy espoused at the March for Science Seattle. That comment received no response.

It went on from there, according to a painstakingly detailed narrative laid out in a 50-page document that Block the Bunker activists prepared for Seattle Weekly, complete with dozens of screenshots from Facebook and Twitter. The document’s authors identify themselves as a collection of “practicing scientists and high-school students; we are Black and Latinx and mixed and Asian and indigenous to many continents; we are queer and trans; we are survivors.” All names and identifying details were redacted for safety reasons: Many of these activists say they’ve been harassed, doxxed, and threatened with rape and other forms of violence when they’ve spoken their minds and made themselves personally available online and in public.

Greb to this day maintains that he and his colleagues were always open to dialogue, that anyone could have messaged him directly on Facebook or Twitter and voiced their concerns at any time. Yet, according to the document provided by Block the Bunker, the mere fact that he was serving as that kind of arbiter made the whole structure of the thing feel lopsided and hierarchical. Many members of the group felt shut out from the MFSS organizing process, and whether or not that was intentional, it seems clear that they struggled to find purchase. They wanted the March to be organized in a way that was truly democratic, truly consensus-based. They repeatedly asked for an open meeting that never came. They offered their own expertise—not only in organizing marches, particularly around social justice-oriented causes, but also in selecting scientists of color who could speak at the event or get involved in some other way—but it always seemed to be too late, or too early, to get a clear foothold. There was a lot of miscommunication—and missed communications—during the three-month process. March-related decisions were not made in the open.

“The simple request for an open meeting where we could voice our ideas and concerns was never fulfilled,” they write. “Organizers didn’t respond to people who filled out volunteer forms. Direct conversations stalled, if organizers replied at all. There was no way to join [in the organizing process of] the MFSS without an invitation, and none was offered.”

Joshi, who wasn’t involved with the Block the Bunker action but is in touch with the activists involved, says she and colleagues of hers also approached MFSS organizers and were also rebuffed. There was a lot of back-and-forth, then a single, in-person meeting, MFSS organizers and Joshi both say, after which Joshi’s group was told via email that their views weren’t “evidence-based” and that March organizers would not require their formal endorsement to proceed. To Joshi, this demonstrated just how unenlightened the organizers were and how unwilling to practice genuine inclusivity.

“We reached out to them … in good faith … to say, you know, we can help you, we can give you advice,” Joshi says. “We can help you organize in a way that this actually has a positive impact, that begins the healing process by which we can all come together.” The fact that those advances weren’t accepted was a sign, to Joshi and others, that the MFSS organizers had closed ranks.

Greb says that wasn’t the case, and that there was something quite different at play.

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Thousands turned out for the March for Science in Seattle. Photo by Alex Garland

In the weeks leading up to the March, the media pressed scientists over and over again to say whether or not it was OK for a scientist to be politicized. Scientists are supposed to be dispassionate researchers, some argue, devoted to the intricacies of their craft. Many participating scientists responded that under normal circumstances, they resisted wading into politics, but the urgency of the moment called for extraordinary action. They couldn’t sit back and watch the very scientific method get devalued; they couldn’t stay silent as rabid political ideology seemed to overwhelm basic facts. “I see the Science March as a coming-out party for scientists who have always been careful about getting involved in political advocacy and activism,” Lucky Tran, a member of the national march’s steering committee, told The New York Times.

And so, scientists and science communicators and supporters of science got out in the streets and waved their signs and made their splash. Many hope to continue to do so, in whatever way they can. But what the science community sees as an active, bold resistance, some activists view as too little, too late.

Scientists, argues Joshi—particularly climate scientists—should be activists. The facts “should make them radical,” she says. “For a scientist to say, ‘I’m a scientist, not an activist,’ that means they are a coward.”

Plus, to be effective, a march like the one held in April “really needs a demand list,” she adds. “It needs to have actual local impacts—local things that can work here. … [It needs] to ask the community about what they need.” A march without such things marks “the complacency of white liberalism … If you really want do something and you really dislike this president, even if you want to blame everything on him and you want to change it, this isn’t going to save it. This isn’t going to change it.”

At its core, the March for Science “advocates for evidence-based policy,” Greb says. Yet there is significant tension between that kind of basic advocacy and the decidedly left-wing impetus of the emergent movement. And while some scientists are activists and vice versa, science, as a whole, tends not to define itself in activist terms. Its work is measured, painstaking, reserved; it’s neutral in tone, it’s an apparatus that moves slowly. Consensus shifts require an enormous amount of new, peer-reviewed, and watertight evidence.

So once they decided to take to the streets, for what seemed like a big step—and which, from most accounts, seemed to have gone well—the scientific community ran up against fierce beliefs about how such a thing should look, what its messaging should be, and how it should be structured. Some social justice activists saw March organizers as clumsily—perhaps dangerously—co-opting a space that didn’t belong to them and operating on beliefs that didn’t jibe with the mores of ethical and effective social justice work. Because it was a march, they said, it should include everybody—and not only on stage, but in the leadership.

“There is a huge difference between recruiting people of color to stand on a stage (or in front of a camera) to represent ‘diversity’ and recruiting folks from the most marginalized communities for leadership roles in the core of the organization,” Block the Bunker activists write. “Being able to define the structure and values of the organizing and choose who gets to speak, when, where, and on what is exponentially more powerful than a few minutes of speaking time.”

Early on, MFSS did count a person of color amongst its leadership. The first person working with Greb on the March was a local scientist of color—someone credited with putting out the very first call to create a March for Science in Seattle, though Greb created its social media accounts—but she left her role in early March. The woman, who requested that she not be identified, told Seattle Weekly that she does not define herself as an activist, but that she was extremely frustrated by the way the March was run. In a letter about her experience, she pointed to MFSS organizers’ “increasingly dogmatic, opinionated behavior that very swiftly addresses differing opinion with censorship … concerns were voiced very early on by minorities or those representing marginalized communities, and then later from multiple volunteers … When voices of dissent or concerns continued to be raised, they were treated with disdain or simply deleting and blocking rather than with dialogue.”

MFSS organizers disagree, saying that they welcomed diversity, deliberately leaving positions open on Facebook so that anyone could apply and waiting until they were running up against a funding deadline for two outreach positions, because they’d had no applicants of color. (Of note is that no one, not Greb or any MFSS volunteer, was paid for the work they did to organize the march.) They also reached out to other scientists of color to speak at the March about the lack of representation in the sciences. Dr. Tracie Delgado, a biology professor at Northwest University who studies cancer-causing viruses, spoke about the barriers she faced as a Latina woman who attended a public school in East Los Angeles where many of her peers dropped out (“not having role models was big,” she later told Seattle Weekly). Tyler Valentine, an African-American student in the undergraduate astrophysics program at the University of Washington, spoke about inequity in public schools, implicit bias, and de facto segregation. (“Until black lives matter, and until the New Jim Crow is dismantled piece by piece, we can’t hope to see any meaningful change in the racial and ethnic makeup of our scientists and engineers,” he told the crowd.)

For her part, Delgado says she “was very impressed with the [MFSS] leadership team and how well they worked with everybody to let us say what was on our hearts.” For her, the whole process was smooth and easy. “They seemed really enthusiastic and excited to have me speak.”

As for the Block the Bunker interruption, she says she was frustrated. “Activists have good intentions and hearts,” she says. “The things they say are really important. But the tactics are not always the most effective.” In fact, she says the whole thing mirrored the kinds of microaggressions and barriers she’s faced her entire career, from high school to professorship. “I was going to speak on the issues of diversity and inclusion” in the sciences, she says. The interruption happened before her speech. “It’s super ironic. ‘Let us empower you, let us get you where you need to be’ … but then, ‘Oh, wait, you’re gonna speak? We’re not gonna let you speak.’” Block the Bunker activists specifically apologized to Delgado after she posted similar thoughts online.

Delgado did speak, ultimately, about growing up in a one-bedroom apartment with her mother and four younger siblings in East L.A. and attending an overcrowded, under-resourced high school with a high dropout rate and a science curriculum that did not prepare her for college. The first time she ever met a scientist who looked like her—a woman of color—was during her sophomore year at UCLA. “Stories get people to relate,” she says, “putting them in those shoes, those eyes.” Instead of saying, “This is a problem; we need to fix it,’” Delgado prefers her tack: “This is what the problem looks like. This is why we need to fix it.’”

If anything was rebuffed in the lead-up to the March, Greb and other MFSS organizers say, it wasn’t the identities of the people introducing ideas about how things should be done, but the ideas themselves—many of which were presented in a lengthy list of demands that Women of Color Speak Out organizers brought to March for Science organizers.

Joshi believes the list should have been a conversation starter, not a conversation killer, but MFSS organizers—and many Facebook commenters—have argued that it couldn’t help but be the latter. “These points and demands of yours are 100 percent wholly unscientific and based in pseudoscience,” one wrote. “They are completely out of bounds.” The list, published on Facebook the day before the March, contains 19 separate demands and assertions, including that women of color and indigenous activists of color should be on the March’s steering committee; that “inclusivity” is a white supremacist term; and that the March itself should have a demand list. But certain demands, which the list pegs as “nonnegotiable,” remain either firm takes that run counter to scientific consensus, such as the unequivocal condemnation of genetically modified food and nuclear power, or involve topics that scientists don’t believe should be required for a science march, such as faith and spirituality.

“I don’t mind the criticism,” Greb says, adding that he did not see the list himself until after the March had happened—it was other MFSS organizers who had rejected it. “People should be critical of the group.” Racism and exclusion in the sciences is a “long, systemic problem, and people should be watchdogs for that.” But for Greb, “the list of demands from this group is not a list of demands from a group that wants to promote science and inclusion … What am I supposed to do when they’re a group that doesn’t care about the science march? It’s a very difficult position.”

Block the Bunker’s full speech also seemed to Greb to be discordant with the event’s aims. Had it been delivered in its entirety, it would have ended with arguments surrounding several local, progressive issues, including the fight against the King County youth jail. This “210-million-dollar investment in our children’s failures is going forward, despite the fact that all evidence says that putting kids in cages is counterproductive,” it reads. “Which is an opinion I share,” says Greb, matter-of-factly, “but not necessarily something [that’s] in the scope of the March for Science.”

Then there are GMOs. The term, an acronym for genetically modified organisms, is used to describe widely varying practices, from selective breeding to inserting fish genes into tomato plants—and stark ideological divides have developed around it. Block the Bunker activists write that Greb “consistently reproduced his own biases as a white man who advocates for GMOs … and who doesn’t think social justice has much to do with science.” Similarly, for Joshi and her colleagues, there is no gray area; they are vehemently anti-GMO, in large part for the exploitative ways they believe GMOs impact ecosystems, economic systems, and the people who eat them and grow them. There are many stories of how patented GM seeds, for instance, often controlled by the multinational big-ag corporation, Monsanto, have bankrupted farmers in developing countries.

Greb points out that more scientists agree that GMOs are not harmful to human health or the environment than agree that climate change is caused by human activity (and considering the going rate for climate change consensus is around 97 percent, that’s a lot). He believes “being anti-GMO is very harmful to a lot of people” because it ignores how GMOs can be used to help feed the world, to help certain crops become more resistant to pests, and thus reduce the demand for toxic pesticides. Many of the anti-GMO efforts, led by Greenpeace and other, similar groups, he believes, spread myths and propaganda—sometimes through pseudoscience. That is Greb’s primary argument against the list of 19 demands provided by Women of Color Speak Out.

Pseudoscience uses “the authority of the word science, but not the rigor,” Greb says. He points to an example from the right: Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming, a book that the libertarian think tank The Heartland Institute is now sending out to hundreds of thousands of teachers across the country (including in Seattle). The book’s authors are “forming conclusions based on misrepresentations of data that are not peer-reviewed.” Likewise, for Delgado, pseudoscience is “something that seems scientific but really isn’t. It makes scientific claims but is not backed up by the scientific method.”

And yes, “sometimes the scientific consensus was wrong,” Greb says. “Some of the most beautiful moments were when we found out what we knew wasn’t quite right. But the time to admit that you are wrong is when you have good evidence.”

He adds that “it’s important to call out scientific institutions when they’re wrong,” noting, like Joshi and the Block the Bunker activists, many racist and bigoted atrocities that have been done in the name of science, such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiments or gay conversion therapies. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t trust the scientific method, he says. “The method is the idea. People are flawed. People will mess up the method. But we need to care about the method, because it works. It’s prolonged our life span, it sends us to the stars … it makes all of our lives better. That’s why we marched—for the value of the method.”

But can the method ever hope to be separated from the people who use it? Does science exist in a vacuum, impervious to the privilege so often necessary to be able to practice the method in the first place? Is that even possible? Not in the slightest, activists say.

Our evidence,” Joshi intones. “Our data. Who gets to publish it? What peer-reviewed journal does it go into? The scientific method, as the Western, white-male-dominated scientific community defines it, is a method that is inherently exclusionary.”

The March for Science Seattle is no longer just a march; it is an organization now, with the stated goal of continuing to “champion the role of science in the public sector and in policy.” A recent post on its blog offers tips for debating climate deniers. On June 7, the group held an emergency meeting to discuss Trump’s exit from the Paris Agreement. And “going forward, we want to make sure people who don’t feel the scientific community cares about them—we want to make sure that they know we do,” Greb says.

Greb is stepping down from his role in the March, but says the group as a whole plans do all kinds of outreach, including in Seattle schools, to make sure that kids in all neighborhoods, especially low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, see themselves in scientific fields. So far, for instance, some community members have used the March for Science platform to help fundraise for a South Seattle middle school’s science lab.

April is receding into the past now, yet Greb still wrestles with what, exactly, happened.

“It may be true that I insufficiently reached out to minority groups,” he says now. “I thought I did [enough]. I may have not done the best job I could have.”

On that, the activists and Greb can agree. Yet, the rift appears no closer to healing and, on a larger scale, can feel irreparable. The Trump administration may have exposed the incongruity between the institution of science and the aims of social justice advocates, but it did not create it.

Trump, according to Joshi, is number 45 in a long line of U.S. presidents that she believes have upheld white supremacy to one degree or another. “Trump is the symptom,” she says, but it is “the system that needs to be dismantled.” And that—underscoring, in some ways, the heart of the conflict here—is “the whole point of a march.”