Thomas R. O'Donnell

What’s ahead for the March for Science Iowa; what sparked dissent at the event

In STEM on April 27, 2017 at 11:50 am
The science commandments, from a March for Science Iowa participant: Thou shalt: Question, Research, Hypothesize, Test, Analyze, Conclude. Thou Shalt NOT: Jump to Conclusions on "Alternative Facts," Illogical arguments, Ideology instead of Reason.

The science commandments, from a March for Science Iowa participant. He had his wife and child with him, too.

I wasn’t sure what would happen last Saturday. More than 1,300 people were committed via Facebook and more than 900 people followed the @MarchForScienceIA Twitter handle, and we got some press on WHO-TV and in the Des Moines Register. Nonetheless, I couldn’t guess how many actually would show up for the March for Science Iowa at the Capitol.

I contributed (in money and time) to the march and was there to help (my job, with my wife and son, was to man the barricades at each end of Finkbine Drive on the Capitol’s west side). If a thousand people gave up a beautiful Saturday afternoon to support science, I would be thrilled.

As the march started, I stationed myself at the corner of Finkbine and Grand Avenue and used a handheld clicker to count the passing participants. At times it looked like the troop of colorfully dressed, T-shirt-bedecked and sign-bearing activists would peter out, but a new horde would appear. I clicked furiously to keep up.

When the last had gone by, the readout was 2,025. I know I missed dozens more and organizers put the crowd at 2,500, give or take a couple hundred.

It was a great event – an enthusiastic and orderly crowd and a gorgeous day. Participants heard energizing speeches (at least one with some controversy sprinkled in) and educational talks. Organizers already are considering how to capitalize on the momentum.

Aerial view of the March for Science Iowa crowd, via drone. Credit: Thomas Critelli O'Donnell.

Aerial view of the March for Science Iowa crowd, via drone. Credit: Thomas Critelli O’Donnell.

As I wrote in January, as a handful of organizers were planning it, the March for Science Iowa was a local counterpart to the national March for Science in Washington, D.C. Similar satellite marches were held in dozens of other cities in Iowa, the United States and around the world.

The goals: raise awareness of science’s vital role in society, demand evidence-based public policy and call for publicly funded and publicly communicated research. The marches were nonpartisan but not nonpolitical; the participants sought policy changes but acknowledged that both conservatives and liberals have at times denied scientific evidence. (I’ll note that I made an effort through intermediaries to invite Iowa Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, chair of the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council. I was told her schedule was full.)

With the event trickling to a close and remaining participants listening to a series of speakers in small “teach-ins” on the Capitol grounds, Kaitlin Higgins, one of the trio of March for Science Iowa leaders, reflected on the results. “There’s big difference between seeing the number (signed up to attend) on line and seeing it in real life,” said Higgins, an Iowa State University student working on her second bachelor’s degree, this one in genetics, after earning one in agronomy in 2015.

Higgins and the other lead organizers, University of Iowa student Shamus Roeder and food safety manager Jordan Shaw of West Des Moines, began discussing what comes next even before the march took place. “We’ll try to do more advocacy,” Higgins said, with events like “ask a scientist” nights around the state – especially in areas not well served by science agencies and educators.

They’ve also discussed creating a scorecard for how politicians deal with science. Another idea is to join with other Iowa science advocacy groups for a united voice.

Joining Higgins on the march was her 7-month-old daughter, Freya – a daughter whose health problems have been treated thanks to scientific advances. Freya was one of a surprising number of children at the event with their parents, providing a special vibrancy to the event and a visible example of the future the marchers were fighting for.

A forest of signs sprouts as March for Science Iowa participants prepare to head south on Finkbine Drive. Credit: Paula Mohr.

A forest of signs sprouts as marchers prepare to head south on Finkbine Drive. Credit: Paula Mohr.

Participants carried a sea of signs and wore T-shirts with a range of science-conscious slogans:

  • Jesus + Galileo BFF
  • SCIENCE Because you can’t just MAKE S*** UP
  • Empirical DATA Trumps Imperial Alt-FACTS
  • GOT POLIO? YEAH, ME NEITHER
  • NEWTON’S 3RD LAW: FASCISM IN MOTION REMAINS IN MOTION UNTIL IT MEETS THE RESISTANCE
  • Tyson-Nye 2020: Revenge of the Nerds (a reference to astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and science TV host Bill Nye.)
  • And a sign held by an ersatz Einstein in wig, stick-on mustache and lab coat: A people cannot exist both ignorant & free.

A number of interest groups had an organized presence, including the Citizens Climate Lobby, Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, atheists in black T-shirts saying “Science doesn’t care what you believe” and more – but most appeared to be just interested citizens.

They gathered on the lower terrace at the west side of the Capitol to hear a range of speakers, all introduced by the able Pat Boddy, former Polk County Conservation director now with RDG Planning & Design. She gave her own brief speech, inciting the crowd to shout “science now for everyone.”

The leading edge of the March for Science Iowa coming down Grand Avenue, with organizer Shamus Roeder wielding the bullhorn.

The leading edge of the March for Science Iowa coming down Grand Avenue, with organizer Shamus Roeder wielding the bullhorn.

Tracy Heath, an evolutionary biologist and professor at Iowa State University (although she declined to identify her institution), noted that as a daughter of an immigrant from the Philippine Islands, she’s often heard she doesn’t look like a scientist. But “we are scientists and this is what we look like. … Science is for everyone and everyone needs science.”

Corrie Moreau, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago and an assistant curator at the Field Museum, said researchers need a diverse culture to achieve the best results and must come out of their enclaves to communicate and collaborate. “So yes, I even work with chemists” and people in other specialties. Science, Moreau said, is designed to solve problems. “We need to be able to explain that” she added. “We need to get out of the lab and into the streets and that’s just what we’re doing today.”

But not every speaker was greeted with equal enthusiasm. The keynote was Michelle Miller, who bills herself as the Farm Babe as she defends farmers and farm practices. She cited cases in which science has saved major crops like oranges, papayas and bananas, and praised the work of Iowan Norman Borlaug in breeding wheat strains that helped feed millions.

“Sometimes, it feels like farmers and scientists are the most underappreciated professions,” Miller said, before offering an unvarnished defense of genetically engineered crops, farm chemical use and mass animal feeding operations. “It’s up to us to educate policymakers and misinformed activists,” she said to a crowd that included many she would put in that latter category.

One of the better signs at the March for Science Iowa: A portrait of Darwin with the slogan, "Very gradual CHANGE we can believe in.". Credit: Paula Mohr.

One of the better signs at the March for Science Iowa. Credit: Paula Mohr.

I’m not going to offer a defense or an analysis of Miller’s positions, which garnered a tepid response from the crowd. I will say that at least one of her assertions bugs me: that on her farm, they spray just 22 ounces of herbicide (glyphosate, better known as Roundup) per acre only two days per year. That’s less than two pop cans of herbicide spread over an area the size of a football field, Miller notes, but I believe that’s because the herbicide is concentrated: it’s designed to be diluted in water, then sprayed. So 22 ounces doesn’t sound like much, except that it’s put into gallons of water that effectively become the herbicide.

Nonetheless, I’m not convinced that glyphosate is the poison some activists believe it is; it’s a risk, but so is going outside without sunscreen, and it offers other environmental advantages (like reduced tillage) that may counterbalance it. Food writer Nathanael Johnson at the envrionmental website Grist puts it in perspective.

The die-hard environmentalists in the crowd, however, were having none of this. One of them gave me an earful as he left the event before the march. Miller “killed” the rally, he said, by touting “poison” and other evils of large-scale agriculture.

The larger point, I think, was lost on him: that the people who grow our food rely on science and that farm chemicals and modern practices, used responsibly and based on the latest research, need not damage the environment.

 

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  1. Putting corporate profits over ecology is why we killing the planet. There is more than technological manipulation to science.

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