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March for Science Brussels 2017

The March For Science and why it's relevant

4 minutes to read
Column
Jan Blommaert
28/04/2017

I was one of many thousands of scientists who marched in cities across the world on April 22, 2017, invited to do so by a US-based, but rapidly internationalized network of scientists; I shall use MFS (March For Science) as the acronym for this network. I went to Brussels and joined roughly 200 colleagues in front of the national library. It was a rather strange event, but cosy and combative at the same time. I can call myself an experienced demonstrator with many, many miles of protest marching on the clock, collected in three decades of activism. Most of the other people I met that day in Brussels were clearly unexperienced in that sense, feeling somewhat awkward and out-of-place. But the spirit was good, the conversations engaging and enthusiastic, and the mix of young and old, senior and junior was encouraging.

The scientists came out to fight the decidedly anti-science atmosphere surrounding the Trump presidency, where climate change, sustainable development and Darwin's theories are countered with a torrent of "alternative facts" now converted into US federal policy. Given the visibility of such themes, the MFS was obviously dominated by scientists from the "hard" sciences. This led one alpha colleague on social media to voice critical comments on the particular ideology of science carried along in the marches: the science promoted in the MFS is exactly the wrong science, was the argument, and this led him to distance himself from the March. Let me provide some comments to this argument. I shall start by outlining what I did not like about the Brussels march.

Will all the problems facing scientists be solved when Mr Trump accepts evidence-based arguments as the foundation for his policies? I don't think so.

First, I heard a pretty robust amount of naiveté about science voiced by scientists and painted on their banners as slogans. Science, it seems, only speaks the Truth; science is objective, science will save the planet. 

Surely I can agree will all that; but I must in fairness add that science also provides the best possible lies, that it can mask the most outspoken bias and that it has done a massive amount of service in destroying the planet. The "Monsanto-gate" scandal that erupted just a few days after the march illustrates all of that quite nicely: scientists did their very innovative best in manufacturing a toxic substance, helped Monsanto hide or misrepresent the toxicity of the product, assisted the company in lobbying the EU for approval, and loudly proclaim that this product is no less than the key to progress for the world. In the Medical Dictionary, such kinds of science - highly lucrative and sure to offer researchers a high profile and a load of top publications - is known as "tobacco science". That, too, is science, and denying it is of no use.

Which takes me to a second point of critique: the narrow agenda of the march. Will all the problems facing scientists be solved when Mr Trump accepts evidence-based arguments as the foundation for his policies? I don't think so. I myself came out to Brussels in support of MFS's call, naturally, but also to press some other points. I will briefly mention two.

One: the labor conditions imposed on scientists. Scientists, especially (but not exclusively) those working in academic institutions, increasingly work in precarious social and economic conditions. Salaries are often, at best, mediocre; there is tremendous pressure to perform and produce since the labor environment has become extraordinarily competitive; the reward for such competitiveness is often just a short-term contract, extension of which requires superhuman efforts, careful faculty diplomacy and, too often alas, personal favoritism. Time for research is rare, time to think even more so, time to withdraw for a while to study and reflect near-absent. The labor conditions for scientists are, in sum, profoundly anti-scientific in the sense that they shape conditions of production for all sorts of things except intellectual ones.

Scientists are literally locked up in an ivory tower by the compelling expectation to publish in a small range of commercially published so-called "top journals".

Two: open access. Scientists are literally locked up in an ivory tower by the compelling expectation - part of the labor conditions - to publish in a small range of commercially published so-called "top journals". Work published in such journals is forbiddingly expensive for those wishing (or required) to read it, and the handful of publishers controlling the academic publishing market form one of the most lucrative business sectors on earth. The market is so lucrative that sharing platforms such as Academia.edu recently, and sadly, also introduced paywall features. Most of science, consequently, remains hidden behind such absurd paywalls, creating a readership of scientists only (but only those working in privileged sites of research), and excluding most of society as interested audiences. And as stakeholders in science: the compulsory ivory tower of for-money publishing is one of the reasons why scientists and what they do are so often the object of extreme ignorance in other segments of society. And science, thus, fails to achieve its democratic mission. Open access, for me, is therefore an issue of the most supreme importance today.

Those issues were on top of my agenda, but they were absent from the MFS's platform. So what was good about it then? The answer is simple: the sheer fact that people otherwise not likely to engage in social activism came out and did so in considerable numbers is a new social and political given. It shapes the conditions for more action, more diverse forms of action, and a broader and more diversified program. MFS has already announced such forms of follow-up, and that is very, very good. For the fight for science is directed at the heart of some of today's most harmful social and political developments, and those include a reduction all kinds of knowledge forms to just one: "opinion". The March For Science, thus, can be the beginning of a game-changing movement targeting some of the crucial evils of today's world, those evils that revolve around how knowledge is produced, represented and used, around the integrity of knowledge production, representation and use. 

So let scientists of all disciplines and persuasions come out now, to argue that not every opinion is a fact and that it is some people's job to make such distinctions. These people, one should add, do not include Mr Trump.