Science March Appoints Three Public Faces Amidst Mounting Controversy

Science March Appoints Three Public Faces Amidst Mounting Controversy

Bill Nye the Science Guy will be joining the March for Science as an honorary chair, according to a new blog post on The Planetary Society’s website. Two other scientists, Mona Hanna-Attisha, public health advocate at Hurley Medical Center, and Lydia Villa-Komaroff, a well-known biologist, will also be chairing, according to a report in Buzzfeed News.

Image: Bill Hrybyk/NIH/Hurley Medical Center

The March for Science, slated for April 22 in Washington, DC, with satellite marches around the world, was conceived as an idea in late January. Born out of a strong sentiment that the new US administration is anti-science, the March grew into an international movement almost overnight. But since its inception, it’s been suffering from an organisational leadership problem, according to reporting by STAT. Much of the controversy stems from complaints surrounding the representation of minority groups and diversity issues in STEM, and conversely, concerns over the mixing of political goals with scientific goals. Organisers even received complaints after staffing Nye, a white man, as its honorary chair, reports Buzzfeed.

Nye’s statement says the Planetary Society will march to “celebrate science”, “advocate for space”, and “inspire unity”. The post continues:

The March for Science champions robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity. We unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policymakers to enact evidence-based policies in the public interest.

But others say the March has been far from united, diverse or even nonpartisan.

From the beginning, the March has drawn fire for failing, in the eyes of some, to adequately address issues of equality within science — including racial and gender disparities, and abelism. Many have voiced concerns that people with physical handicaps, or folks with autism spectrum disorders, will not be accommodated at the March, reported STAT. The March has also been critiqued by some scientists for its tone surrounding women’s and diversity issues.

On the flip side, you might remember back in January, when Harvard cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker said the March was compromising its mission — an apolitical march for evidence-based science, in his view — in order to satisfy “hard-left” rhetoric. Pinker’s comments only added fuel to the fire, sparking the ire of basically everyone who wasn’t white, straight and male. Others think science must become a political issue in the face of a fascist government.

The decision to appoint much-loved Bill Nye as an honorary chair has once again set many off, with critics arguing that the March is promoting the status quo of the white male scientist. Adding Hanna-Attisha and Villa-Komaroff — two women of colour who have fought for the recognition of underrepresented groups in science — as co-chairs was the March’s attempt to show that it is in fact taking diversity issues seriously. But not everyone is satisfied. (The March has also released four separate diversity statements, each of which has sparked a fresh wave of controversy for either being too soft or too strong, depending on what you believe the goals of a science march should be.)

Based on a straw Twitter poll we conducted — with a relatively small, biased sample size — it appears scientists are indeed quite conflicted over the March.

Others are happy with the choices on top of Nye.

“Bill Nye has been a tireless force for scientific engagement, especially for kids, though I often worry we lean on him too much as the sole representative of scientific advocacy,” Jacquelyn Gill, a professor at the University of Maine who quite the organising committee over issues relating to how the march was handling inequality, told Gizmodo via email. “There are a lot of other really great voices out there, too, so I’m especially excited to see Dr Hanna-Attisha and Dr Villa-Komaroff join the march leadership. With their ground-breaking research and public engagement, they have really modelled not only why science matters to soceity, but also how marginalized communities have already been on the front lines of the war on science.”

Whether the March should be political, apolitical, and to what length it should go to be inclusive are questions that will probably continue to dog its organisers, and I’ve reached out to them to see what they have got to say about the matter.

Until then, I guess it’s nice that Bill Nye will be there.

[The Planetary Society, Buzzfeed, STAT]