Thomas R. O'Donnell

Iowa’s March for Science sets second event, looks to the future

In Government, STEM on February 14, 2018 at 7:16 am
Science backers listen to speakers during the March for Science Iowa on April 22, 2017 at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines.

Science backers listen to speakers during the March for Science Iowa on April 22, 2017 at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines.

Nearly a year ago, around 3,000 Iowans gathered on a sunny April day to support science – its role in public policy and improving the human condition – at one of dozens of marches around the world.

The March for Science Iowa, April 22 (Earth Day), united citizens, sent a message to government and provided insights into Iowa-based research. But its organizers say their dreams to continue advocating throughout the year haven’t panned out. Assembling the event left many of them exhausted. I was involved and, like others, the demands of work and family left me little time for activism. (Just look at the recent sparsity of posts to this site for evidence.)

Now, however, two of last year’s leaders are staging a revival, starting with a second event – to coincide, again, with a national March for Science. They’re also working to institute a formal structure that, with luck and hard work, could lead to a more enduring impact.

I wrote about the march as planning began in January last year and recapped the event. Although the organizers, both in Iowa and across the country, were reacting to the election of a climate-change-denying, fossil-fuel-loving and nuclear-weapon-embracing president, they billed the event as political but nonpartisan. As reaction to the Iowa event showed (read the end of this post), even those who hold liberal views and claim to enthusiastically embrace science can turn against it when it conflicts with their opposition to big agriculture.

It’s hard to see how the 2017 event could have gone much better, but since then the triumvirate of Iowans who drove the planning have largely moved on to cope with life’s demands. Shamus Roeder, the University of Iowa student who led the effort, is tending to his startup company. Kaitlin Higgins, an Iowa State University genetics student, went on to finish her degree and take a job with a seed company. Jordan Shaw, a West Des Moines food safety manager, says he was a bit burned out.

March for Science Iowa activity fell largely to Facebook posts highlighting the Trump administration’s latest outrage, science’s impact and other items. As one participant in an Ames meeting earlier this month noted, an anti-science attitude in government riled up people for 2017’s event, but it’s difficult to sustain that level of anger – and activism.

Higgins and Shaw organized the meeting to discuss planning for a second march and to plot a more sustained effort. It was sparsely attended, but the group took steps to meet those goals.

The seed is there for a successful second march. A substantial amount of cash remains from last year’s fundraising and organizers now know what planning is needed, making it easier to do again. From all indications, it looks like the event will again be held in Des Moines, this year on April 14. You can learn more at the march’s Facebook page. Please sign up to volunteer.

A web poll Higgins staged asked respondents what they would like to see next. Of the few dozen who responded, most favored one big march rather than smaller ones scattered around the state. Most also said they would participate and many offered to volunteer – although mostly on the day of the march.

One person at the meeting suggested having one big event a year may be best, rather than attempting to sustain a constant level of indignation and protest. “You might be able to get people to show up once a year,” he said. (The downside, as I’ll note here, is that an annual event without continued activism risks becoming routine, leading to less impact.)

That’s the main question, Shaw noted: “What does advocacy look like throughout the year?” Can March for Science Iowa organizers work with other science-oriented groups to advocate for policy based on sound research, score bills offered in the Iowa legislature on whether they conflict or align with scientific findings, and stage outreach to science’s next generation?

For that to even be a possibility, Shaw and Higgins believe the march should have a more formal organization. For example, there’s money but no bank account. Contributions went through Trees Forever, an Iowa conservation nonprofit that acts as the march’s financial agent, making donations tax-deductible. That organization then paid the march’s bills.

Shaw and Higgins don’t want to rely on Trees Forever, um, forever. A formal structure and nonprofit status will allow March for Science Iowa to handle its own money and, hopefully, give it a more sustainable future. It will encourage continued advocacy, perhaps with support from a scientific advisory board.

The Ames meeting ended with votes to establish such a structure. Shaw and Higgins were elected officers and a committee was established to draft bylaws.

I don’t know where this train will go, but I’m on board. If there’s a statewide organization to push government to accept science, trust scientists and base policy on sound research, I’m not aware of it. (The Iowa Academy of Science is largely designed to promote science, science education and networking. It’s not an activist group.) I hope March for Science Iowa, Inc. (or whatever it comes to be called) becomes that voice.

Watch this space to find out.

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