Around 10,000 scientists and their supporters marched through London on Saturday — one of more than 500 demonstrations worldwide celebrating “robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity”.
As the London demonstrators marched from the Science Museum to Parliament Square, they waved hundreds of colourful placards made in labs and homes across Britain, with messages ranging from “Nature isn’t fooled by alternative facts” and “Science not silence” to “The oceans are rising and so are we” and “Science trumps alternative facts”. Occasional chants rang out such as “Hey ho, hey ho, ignorance has got to go”.
The event was good natured, with minimal policing. It concluded with a rally in which speakers pleaded for politicians and governments to respect scientific evidence and the international mobility required for research to thrive.
For example Jon Butterworth, a particle physicist at Cern in Geneva, said to cheers: “I’m very worried about the trends today leading to a retreat into isolationism and nationalism. That will be very damaging for science.”
The mother of Saturday’s marches, taking place in Washington DC, was planned to coincide with Earth Day — a protest against what the organisers saw as President Donald Trump’s “anti-science” stance. The Washington event spawned satellite marches across the globe in a loosely co-ordinated manifestation of solidarity with US scientists and of more local concerns.
Although the demonstrations arose from a grass roots reaction against Mr Trump’s statements and actions — ranging from scepticism about climate change and vaccination to immigration restrictions and reduced public funding of research — a more broadly political tone has emerged as established scientific organisations have added their support. Mainstream supporters do not want the marches to portray scientists as just another self-interested pressure group or as a political movement.
In the UK “science is not very partisan issue anyway, it is not a party political issue,” said Professor Butterworth, as all the main parties adopt pro-science attitudes. The issues causing the London marchers most concern were the adverse impact of Brexit on European collaboration and more broadly an international loss of faith in facts and scientific evidence.
“Precious values are at stake,” said Chris Rapley, professor of climate science at University College London. “There is a worrying retreat from rationalism and evidence-based policy. All of my values as an internationalist are under attack; the country seems to be turning inwards.”
The London march attracted a wide range of ages, with more students than professors in attendance. For example Cory Stade, a graduate student in prehistoric archaeology at Southampton University, came dressed as a Neanderthal, bearing a placard that said “Government gives Neanderthals a bad name” on one side and “Evolve” on the other. She said: “I am afraid of rising anti-intellectualism.”
Many non-scientists were marching too, such as Jim Charne and Laurie Hutzler, an American couple wearing pink knitted brain caps. “We want to celebrate science,” said Mr Charne, a lawyer. “This is one of the most peaceful and polite marches ever.”