Colorado scientists get political for climate: “Science not silence”

For the first several blocks, Saturday’s March for Science in downtown Denver was remarkably quiet.

No hey-hey’s or ho-ho’s, no calls and no responses; just a crowd of scientists and their supporters — Facebook says it was more than 10,000 —  walking in the streets with their snarky, clever signs.

They bore slogans like “You can’t repeal physics” and “Evidence is not optional” and “The revolution will be peer reviewed.” One sign had no message, just a large, hand-drawn graph of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels over the past 400,000 years. An eighth grader held up that one-word quote from The Lorax: “Unless.”

These protesters — these costumed Doc Browns, Captain Kirks and Ms. Frizzles, these young women who deemed themselves STEMinists and white-haired men in the witty-T-shirt-and-hiking-boots uniform of aging Colorado academics — were clearly passionate about the state of science in society. So why weren’t they louder?

I told Mary Fran Park, a science teacher in Englewood, that it seemed almost metaphorical: Just as scientists tend to let the facts speak for themselves, they were here letting their signs do the talking for them.

“I think that’s exactly right,” she said. “Scientists, a lot of us — unless we’re teaching — we’re doing our thing.” One sign put it well, she said — “You know it’s serious if the introverts are out.”

Fran Park has been to other marches this year, but for many, Saturday marked a first foray into activism. It certainly was for Xin Sheng, a researcher at CU Medical Center. He and his three colleagues marched for the first time, all in agreement that the political threat to science had finally reached “a tipping point.” Originally from China, Sheng said, “In the past, U.S. climate policy was good, but now…it’s not good.”

President Donald Trump has been notably outspoken against climate change and environmental research. His budget blueprint, essentially a wish list for budget boosts and cuts, proposed slashing EPA funding by 30 percent and reducing funds for environmental research agencies like the National Oceanic and Environmental Administration.

In the lead-up to the march, numerous editorials questioned the premise of scientists acting as activists. Is there a place in science for activism? Should scientists speak about political issues? Perhaps fearful of backlash and further cuts, most government-funded research agencies have forbid their employees from talking about politics.

Many of those at the march, particularly the career scientists, had considered these questions. But they ultimately decided that recent political attacks on climate science were too worrisome not to show up.

“It breaks my heart that we have somehow politicized science,” said Kelsey Elwood, a first year graduate student at CU Boulder whose work includes environmental and climate change-related research.

“It’s perfectly reasonable for politicians to be part of the scientific process…for the scientists to present the facts, and then the politicians to figure how to solve problems,” she said. “But it’s not reasonable for the politicians to figure out what the facts are. That’s not their job.”

Rebecca Rapf, another graduate student at CU Boulder, agreed. “I certainly don’t think of myself as a particularly political person — or certainly didn’t before the election. But I think scientists are taught to hedge, and to say that we aren’t experts, because we don’t want to overstate what we know, which can create a vacuum,” she said. ” It’s time to step up and say what we know.”

Engineers, physicists and geologists said the same thing: Scientists shouldn’t necessarily be political, but this is too serious not to speak up.

Several blocks into the hour-long march, the crowd did find its voice. As if they’d read my mind, they began with a simple chant: “Science not silence,” they shouted. “Science not silence.”


Photo by Kelsey Ray