Science march on Washington plagued by organizational turmoil
Plans for the march are being hindered by infighting among organizers and attacks from outside scientists who don’t believe their interests are fairly represented
Alex Hogan/STAT
By Kate Sheridan and Lev Facher

It may be the largest rally in support of science ever. Hundreds of thousands of people have joined the Facebook group for the upcoming March for Science, and tens of thousands have offered to volunteer. Beyond a march in Washington, supporters will hold simultaneous events in Boston and more than 400 other cities worldwide on April 22 to repudiate science policies and positions of the new White House and Congress.

Yet for all the excitement, STAT has found, plans for the march are plagued by infighting among organizers, attacks from outside scientists who don’t think their interests are fairly represented, and operational disputes. Tensions have become so pronounced that some organizers have quit and many scientists have pledged not to attend.

What was billed as science advocates speaking with a unified voice has instead surfaced long-lingering tensions within the scientific community.

Rachel Holloway, a clinical psychologist who chairs the event’s diversity and inclusion committee, conceded that initially the group was overwhelmed by scientists and activists clamoring for a spot at the table. It was “like trying to drink water out of a fire hose,’’ she said. Things have settled since January, and organizers have begun to address members’ concerns. But many are not satisfied.

Jacquelyn Gill, a biology and ecology professor at the University of Maine, said she quit the organizing committee in recent weeks because of leaders’ resistance to aggressively address inequalities — including race and gender.

“We were really in this position where, because the march failed to actively address those structural inequalities within its own organization . . . we carried those inequalities forward,’’ Gill said. “Some of these problems stem from the march leadership failing early on in its messaging.’’

At the heart of the disagreements are conflicting philosophies over the march’s purpose. In one corner are those who assert that the event should solely promote science itself: funding, evidence-based policies, and international partnerships.

In another are those who argue that the march should also bring attention to broader challenges scientists face, including issues of racial diversity in science, women’s equality, and immigration policy.

At the senior levels of march planning, officials say they are concerned about such splintering of the march’s message — even as they combat their own disagreements over what this historic event intends to accomplish.

A divisive diversity policy

The event’s official diversity policy, posted just days after the march was announced in January, has undergone repeated revisions.

The latest, as of Tuesday night, read: “We acknowledge that society and scientific institutions often fail to include and value the contributions of scientists from underrepresented groups. ... We better serve everyone when we affirm that the labors and achievements of underrepresented communities are foundational to the creation and maintenance of our democracy; engage in difficult conversations; and sustain an open scientific community that celebrates, respects, and includes people from diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives.’’

The statement was designed to be an evolving document, Holloway said, but the massive early interest led to a level of scrutiny organizers didn’t expect. And in the echo chamber of social media, the feedback itself spurred feedback — some of it personal.

For instance, Stephani Page, who has a doctorate in biophysics and biochemistry, tweeted in February that some people critiquing the March for Science online were becoming targets of harassment. Page is now a member of the steering committee, and organizers recently added an anti-harassment statement to the website.

Communications missteps

In its short life, the organization has drawn a big social media following — but has also made some high-profile communications missteps. Many, though not all, of the march’s organizers are newcomers to the world of political activism, and people both inside and outside the group say the leadership has been hesitant to seek help from communications professionals.

And keeping a unified message is even harder when each city’s sister march has its own Twitter account and planning committee.

For instance, Australian-based sociologist Zuleyka Zevallos, in an e-mail to STAT, pointed to what she called “racist dog-whistling’’ by the Los Angeles march chapter in a Twitter post that was since deleted: “some scientists [are] concerned with the march turning into [a] political event and losing its focus. What do YOU pledge to do to keep it peaceful?’’

The implied leap from “political’’ to “violent’’ did not sit well with some science advocates who are minorities.

The march’s social media have been accused of being insensitive on gender issues as well. A tweet answer to an innocuous question about bathroom facilities at the march used the hashtag #GirlsCanBeScientistsToo with a winky face. In late February, Twitter users were dismayed at how the march’s Twitter account referred to women in engineering as “ladies’’ and “females’’ and asked why they thought a gender gap existed, when a huge body of research has shed light on that issue.

Last week, Zevallos published an article about the march’s various diversity problems — a move she made after “close to two months of equity missteps, and many scientists were fed up by having offered their volunteering, advice and resources, only to be ignored,’’ she said. Disagreements over how to respond to these complaints have led at least two people within march leadership to quit.

Asked about Gill’s departure, Holloway said “there has been some push by some people to centralize diversity in a way that diminishes science.’’

Shane Morris, a Nashville-based Web consultant, also left the organizing committee after a week because he viewed it as too worried about appeasing diversity demands and not worried enough about its legacy.

While Morris acknowledged that he is not a member of a group traditionally underrepresented in science — he is a white man — he said he hoped issues of access and diversity could be resolved after the march with legislation and concrete actions. “I’m definitely not against talking about equality issues,’’ he said, “I just felt it was an inappropriate forum.’’ He would have preferred to see the march building up toward a lobbying effort to pass legislation to address these and other issues after the march, he said.

“If you’re not interested in passing policy, then why are we walking around?’’ he said.

Others in the scientific community have expressed concerns about the march’s message becoming watered down. When, for instance, the diversity page was briefly removed from the march’s website in January, prominent Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker tweeted that he was “glad to see that the March for Science Web site has removed the distractions.’’ Pinker had previously described the march as “anti-science’’ for its left-wing political tone.

In early February, an unofficial poll posted by one Reddit user in the site’s March for Science forum found that a majority of respondents said they wouldn’t participate in the march if organizers emphasized social justice issues. Several threads on the march’s Reddit community criticized the march for what they call “scope creep.’’

“I really do want the science march to succeed,’’ Morris said, “and it’s unfortunate that there is so much turmoil within an organization that is needed more now than any other time I can remember.’’

Making a difference

Some remain optimistic that the criticisms levied at the march can be at least partially resolved. Jess Shanahan, an astrophysicist by training and a science communicator, has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome — a hereditary disease that can weaken a person’s connective tissues — and has been vocal about the need for organizers to consider how accessible the march is for people with disabilities.

Organizers contacted her earlier this week and invited her to give input to make the march in Washington more accessible.

That overture “really did influence my decision to attend [the march],’’ she said.

The next big, public test for organizers: the speaker lineup in Washington. Organizers haven’t yet finalized the list and declined to commit to a date when speakers will be announced. Regardless, many people will likely analyze the list to gauge whether it reflects the diversity of the scientific community at large and whether speakers address some of the key barriers people face to joining scientific professions.

“The issues and criticisms of the march are indicative of problems in STEM as a whole,’’ Shanahan said, “and that’s why people are drawing attention to it.’’

Kate Sheridan can be reached at kate.sheridan@statnews. Lev Facher can be reached at lev.facher@