Marching for science
22nd April 2017 was Earth Day and saw thousands across the world join the March for Science. There were 5 marches across the UK, with the biggest taking place in London. Crowds gathered outside the Science Museum and marched towards Westminster’s Parliament Square. Izzie Clarke spoke to Robin Ince, Andrew Steele from Science is Vital and Suze Kundu from the University of Surrey.
Science not silence! Science not silence! Science not silence!
Izzie - On Saturday 22nd April thousands of scientists and science supporters took to the streets in over 500 locations across the world to join the march for science. Created as a celebration of progress, and a call for governments to encourage research, five marches took place in the UK in Bristol, Edinburgh, Norfolk, Manchester, and London. I’m Izzie Clarke, and I spoke to comedian and science broadcaster Robin Ince, one of the speakers at the London march, about why this international movement was taking place?
Robin - The idea of having to stress the importance of science communication, the importance of politicians understanding contemporary science, and the fact that they need to keep open dialogues with scientist. But also, that there some fears with the Scientists for EU movement that when we leave the European Union we will possibly be burning some of our bridges with our scientific community in Europe and the importance of reminding people we must not do that.
Science is something that is an international movement; it does not have to fenced in by national boundaries. In fact, it’s very important that it’s not fenced in by national boundaries. That is one of the beautiful things about CERN. CERN was about bringing together scientists from across the world and working in unison on something positive.
Izzie - This is taking place all over the world. It’s very much an international march. Why now?
Robin - My sense is that over the last couple of years there has been in the mainstream an appearance that perhaps ideas of tolerance, ideas of curiosity, and ideas of moving forward with knowledge, perhaps need greater defending than we’d imagined. There seems to be sense that there’s a retrograde step going on in terms of us as human beings, and I think it’s to remind people that we need to keep moving forward and we cannot be complacent. I think we're beginning to see amongst people, including everyone here, it’s very easy to become complacent because we’ve had comfortable lives. Comfortable lives much of that powered by science and technology.
Izzie - One campaign group that aims to provide a voice for scientists is the organisation Science is Vital. Their Chair, computational biologist Dr Andrew Steele, explained what they do and why scientists are concerned about funding…
Andrew - Science is Vital kicked off back in about 2010 with a protest outside the Treasury protesting the government's threatened spending cuts for science funding. Since then we’ve carried on reacting to various bits of news and protesting, mainly about science funding, but also about other wider issues in science and trying to provide a grassroots voice for scientists and supporters of science.
Izzie - With funding being cut, is that quite a common occurrence at the moment?
Andrew - Science funding’s in a very funny place right now. The government are very keen to make the right noises about science. But if you look at what’s actually happened to science funding in the last five or ten years then basically, since the last government took power, it’s been a bit of a downward direction.
In the Autumn Statement the Chancellor, George Osborne, did announce an extra 2 billion pounds for science. But there’s a lot of uncertainty about firstly how that money’s going to get spent and secondly, whether the whole things just going to be cancelled out by Brexit.
Izzie - The lack of funding, is that just related to researchers or does that extend to the public?
Andrew - European funding extends to all kinds of different areas. Things like agricultural subsidies, and some regional development money for places like Cornwall and Wales are funded from the E.U., but it makes a huge, huge difference to scientific research. About 10% of the UK’s total public spending on our R and D comes from the E.U. and that can definitely affect everybody lives. Research look at things like answers to question in health, answers to how we can generate our energy sustainably into the future. So even if it were only to hit research, that would definitely have huge impacts across the U.K.
Izzie - Why do you think marches like today are important?
Andrew - I think the most important thing about today’s march for science is it provides a focal point. We marched back in 2010 and scientist haven’t marched in the intervening seven years. I think the problem is we just don’t like getting angry but there’s room for some evidence based anger here. We’ve got a tax on science from members of the government in countries all across the world. We’ve got funding being threatened or funding being cut in different places, and I think this just provides the opportunity, a flash point, for scientists and science lovers to come together and be a political voice.
I’m marching because climate change is real.
I’m marching because science isn’t being taken with the kind of respect that it should be.
Because evidence based veterinary medicine is very important.
I’m marching because science is the best way we have of understanding the universe, and I think that we should understand the universe.
I’m marching because alternate facts aren’t peer reviewed.
I’m marching for evidenced based policy making.
Izzie - Whatever the reason, thousands of people turned up across the world to show their support for science. At the end of the day in London, I caught up with guest speaker, Dr Suze Kundu, to talk about how the march affects the general public…
Suze - The majority of this crowd that were here today were made up of scientists, or what I like to call the sci curious people - the people that are already engaged with science. Really what we need to be doing is breaking out of our little bubble and actually engaging with the rest of the public and, hopefully, if people have seen the friendly side of science, and the approachable side of side, and the normal side of science, because ultimately we’re just people too, hopefully they’ll feel more empowered to want to engage with us. So I think this is the first of many things but we need to maintain that, and I think everybody just needs to act on the positivity of today.
Izzie - What would you like to achieve from today?
Suze - One of the things I mentioned in my speech earlier was the fact that we need each and every one of us here today ideally would speak to somebody that wasn’t here today. To speak to them and tell them about why they came here, and what they found out from people, and what we can do. Because, ultimately, over there in parliament, people that are making decisions are making them on behalf of everyone. So people that are funding our research need to take a bit of ownership of that and feel proud in taking some ownership in the science that goes on in this country and abroad as well. Because it’s for them, it’s paid for by them, we want them involved, and we really feel they should be involved.