Penn Staters' voices heard at science march in Washington, D.C.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It was a day to recognize scientists’ innumerable contributions to our lives, though none were more appreciated than weather forecasts and water-resistant clothes.

Tens of thousands of scientists and supporters marched on Washington, D.C., on a rain-soaked day last month, braving the wet and cold to rally support for science. They were joined by thousands more across the world in cities large and small and on every continent.

The unprecedented show of public support came as U.S. politicians weighed proposed budget cuts and rollbacks of policies aimed at protecting the environment and addressing climate change.

“We are at a pivotal moment at a time when science is under assault,” said Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science and an associate in the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute (EESI) at Penn State. “At this moment in history, it’s critical that scientists’ voices be heard.”

Mann, who was invited to be featured speaker at the nonpartisan March for Science event, delivered that message to thousands gathered around the main stage. But he wasn’t alone among the Penn State community in making his voice heard.

More than 130 Penn Staters, from undergraduate and graduate students to faculty and their families, traveled to Washington on three buses organized by the group WE ARE for Science, which advocates for science policy, communications and diversity.

“I was overwhelmed by the positivity, the feeling of this march,” said Helen Gall, co-president of the group and a doctoral student in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at Penn State.

Members of the Penn State community joined thousands of colleagues and members of the general public on April 22, the day of the march. Arriving early, they attended events like teach-ins organized on the National Mall before gathering around 2 p.m. to march through the streets of the capital.

They carried signs that read “Our SOS Call, Save Our Science,” “I am a force for science,” and “It’s not rocket science … actually, some of it is.”

“You could see colleagues meeting up who hadn’t seen each other in 10 years,” said Virginia Marcon, co-president of WE ARE for Science and a doctoral student at Penn State. “It was almost like collaborations at a conference in some ways. People were getting together and discussing science.”

Speakers like Mann and Bill Nye, a prominent science communicator and television personality, took the stage during the event to talk about the crucial role science plays in our everyday lives, and the importance of defending the inclusion of science in policy decisions. Mann and Nye led the subsequent march through the streets of the capital.

“Most scientists would much rather be in the lab, or in the field, doing what they love doing, teaching students, advancing scientific knowledge,” Mann said. “When you see scientists marching in the streets, it’s because we’ve decided that the stakes are simply too great.”

Thousands of members of the general public also attended the march, which Mann said is a sign that the scientists’ message is being received and supported.

“There is a groundswell of support for scientists in this country,” he said. “People recognize embracing science and technology is a large part of what’s made this country great. American exceptionalism has relied on the way we have embraced innovation, and to turn our backs on that now would be a grave mistake.”

Others from Penn State who attended the march said the outpouring of public support was a morale boost during what has been a difficult and uncertain time.

“I was buoyed because of that,” said Erica Smithwick, an associate professor of geography and an associate of EESI at Penn State who attended the march. “Sometimes you think maybe this is just an issue for me or for my science. So the experience for me really allowed me to appreciate that I’m not operating in a vacuum. That there is a groundswell of support for what we do. That’s very inspiring.”

Smithwick traveled to Washington along with her family because she wanted her young children to see the public support for science.

“I wanted to personify the work I do a bit more,” she said. “I wanted them to see science is something everyone cares about, and not just mommy’s job. I thought they would be inspired seeing all those people there and go back to science class on Monday and understand the significance of science class.”

Maddy Nyblade, a Schreyer Scholar majoring in geosciences, traveled to the march with her family, and said she was inspired seeing so many people stand in the rain to show support for scientists and their research. Nyblade worked with Gall and Marcon in organizing undergraduates to attend the march.

“I hope everyone who went takes the energy from the march to do science that might someday change the world,” Nyblade said.

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Last Updated May 31, 2017