Science is ‘just another opinion’? It’s time to take a stand against that kind of talk, according to scientists and sympathisers in 600 cities around the world. And last Saturday afternoon they could also be found on Museumplein in Amsterdam, with some 3,000 people turning out for the event.
The most widely discussed subject during the get-together was climate change. Many of the attendees fear that the Trump administration will be ignoring the mass of meticulously collected scientific climate data whole-hog. The protest sign that got the most attention during the event sent a clear message to POTUS: “You can’t grab science by the pussy.”
As it was, Trump caught a lot of flak on Museumplein. According to a group of women from the American state of Georgia, all decked out in pink ‘pussy hats’, science should never be politicised. But they are willing to make an exception for Trump. “We need to show through marches like this that there is a lot of opposition.” Could you participate in a march like this as a Trump sympathiser? “No,” say the women. “You can be a Republican, but there’s no way you could support Trump and science at the same time.”
Things were a bit more toned down on the main stage, where prominent scientists from a number of disciplines stressed the importance of objective facts, empirical evidence and reproducibility. While the speeches weighed against nationalistic trends, populism and ‘gut feelings’, researchers like Appy Sluijs, Pearl Dykstra and Peter Hagoort mainly emphasised the crucial role played by consensus and new investments in science. “Trust in science, by simply boldly going where no one has ever gone before,” is how the latter put it.
Jarmo Berkhout’s speech catered to those audience members hoping for a bit more activism. The President of the Dutch Student Union (LSVb) firmly denounced right-wing politicians, who allegedly abused science for ‘perverse objectives’.
Not a ‘left-wing pastime’
Berkhout had nothing good to say about the plan of the House of Representatives to survey political affiliations at the Dutch universities. “Which significance would these results have?” In his view, science isn’t a ‘left-wing pastime’, but the very lifeblood of a healthy society. “Science shouldn’t be subservient to politics,” according to Berkhout, who lauded the March for Science as a means to “take a stand against fascistic tendencies”.
The mood was a bit more amenable in the ‘Exploration Tents’, which introduced the general public to the fascinating world of science. In the ‘Mini Professors’ corner, children were allowed to do interesting chemistry experiments, while a bit further on, the visitors could marvel at a cross-section of a cat.
The art of seduction
You could find an ice cream cart between stalls that focussed on research into anorexia and excessive weight among children. The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) was handing out free ice cream cones in the tent, where local temperature had risen considerably due to the many visitors. “Our trick to lure them in is working like a charm. Before they get an ice cream, people need to first pass our stall,” says a smiling KNAW President José van Dijck.
Rector Magnificus Vinad Subramaniam of VU University Amsterdam served as a spokesperson for a number of his colleagues. “A society that curtails science cuts itself short. Let’s not just voice our concerns, but also celebrate the beauty of science.” And what better way to do this than by making extra investments in science, is how he put it to the audience.
The Minister of Education Bussemaker was among the attendees, and in due time she was called to the stage for a closing speech. “Generally speaking, scientists are fairly reluctant protesters,” said Bussemaker, “so it’s great to see so many people come out here today. I would like to emphasise how important it is to continue investing in fundamental research in climate issues and public health – but also in subjects like social cohesion, for example.”
Her reluctance to endorse the plan to invest an extra billion euros in the scientific sector didn’t spoil the fun: VU Rector Subramaniam invited her and the rest of the entourage to join him on a ‘science stroll’ around the Museumplein pond.
Maarten Frens, one of the initiators, looks back on the March for Science with ‘tremendous satisfaction’: “It was a huge celebration of science. I am proud that we managed to organise such a fine event in such a short time.” The brain researcher and dean of Erasmus University College didn’t want to single out a highlight for the day. “I was mainly working behind the scenes, so I actually missed most of the keynote speeches.”
He would like to emphasise that Saturday’s manifestation is merely a ‘starting signal’: “In February we started with eight scientists who wanted to organise something, and this Saturday 3,000 people turned up on Museumplein,” says Frens. “Right now we have the momentum – which means we need to think about how to best build on it.”
For the moment, Frens is still on the fence as far as the follow-up to the March for Science and his own involvement are concerned. “Yesterday we celebrated the results and rested a bit; today was for thanking everyone who contributed. Over the next few days, we will be thinking about where to go from here.”