27 July 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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Marching for science and its importance for democracy

The election as president of Donald Trump in the United States has led to much anxiety among scientists. The positions taken by the new president and his team have led to concerns that scientific findings made over past decades by researchers on the other side of the Atlantic would be thrown into question. These concerns have now become certainties.

In the first weeks after his administration came to power, information about global warming was carefully deleted from the websites of the principal research centres (National Oceanic and Atomospheric Administration, NASA…), leading to fears of a loss of research data.

The appointment of Edward Scott Pruitt at the head of the Environmental Protection Agency is the first offensive against water and air quality regulations. His strong links with industrial lobbies show that Washington’s official policy is to distance itself from the outcomes of the Paris Agreement.

The assault on science is led by the most senior members of the administration. Vice-President Mike Pence has expressed his creationist beliefs. President Trump and his team are very close to climate-change deniers. The attack is already apparent in the US education system: one state has just removed climate change from its schools’ science curriculum.

Similarly, interactions at the heart of the worldwide scientific community are becoming problematic: researchers can no longer work in the United States, international conferences are threatened – the French historian Henry Rousso was detained at Houston airport for several hours, for example.

Resistance

Confronted by this dangerous situation, the term ‘resistance’ has proliferated within scientific circles, notably thanks to ‘rogue’ accounts on social media.

When faced with attacks carried out during the United States presidential campaign against women’s rights, millions of people took part in marches in the biggest towns in America and around the world, just a few hours after the swearing-in of the new president.

This action gave scientists the idea of launching their own march. First in the United States, then in the major countries of the world, such as France. The date chosen is, symbolically, 22 April, Earth Day.

Twitter, Facebook and other social networks have developed rapidly in our country, putting researchers of all disciplines, including the humanities and social sciences, in touch with each other, united by fear of the threat to their common values: scientific methods, questioning, critical thinking and analysis.

The situation of the sciences in France is also a driving force behind this march. Funding is in constant decline, employment of young researchers is precarious and universities and research organisations are increasingly less well financed.

On 22 April, the Marche pour les Sciences en France will be part of this movement. Marches are being organised in 15 towns.

We are worried that our research and results will be misunderstood, ignored or cherry-picked by politicians.

An act of unity

Our marches will bring together all researchers of all disciplines around a common aim: maintaining the importance of the sciences, reminding society of their significance and emphasising their impact on everyday and professional life.

The marches also aim to rally around the sciences all those who spread knowledge throughout society – academics and researchers, journalists, museums, teachers, bloggers, mediators, YouTubers – to create a strong sciençosphere, a scientific community to strengthen mutual dialogue. Our ambition is to make proposals that will improve the situation we find ourselves in.

The march will above all be addressed to our fellow citizens, from whatever background they come, in an act of unity.

For the stakes are greater than simply supporting our colleagues in the United States; they are national, European and global.

Indeed, political discourse heard during the current electoral campaign in France never ceases to worry scientists. One candidate questioned mankind’s role in global warming; another implied that sociology constitutes a ‘culture of justification’. Some play down or vilify the role of scientific advancements that benefit everyone, demonstrating a deep lack of scientific culture among politicians.

Diverse interest groups have set up alliances to discredit the message of science, either by drowning it out or distorting its results, confronting it with faith or submerging it in a nauseating flood of ‘alternative facts’ or ‘fake news’.

Ending ignorance

However, the results of public science have nothing to do with faith. Nor do they have to wait for validation from whatever public authority to be published, discussed and, ultimately, put to use by the public – who finance them through their taxes. As the French astrophysicist André Brahic said at a conference at the University of Algiers: “Unlike you, I can prove all I have just told you.”

Victor Hugo had already highlighted the emancipatory power of knowledge, In Les Contemplations, he said: “Freedom begins when it ends ignorance.”

In a speech to the Assemblée Nationale on 11 November 1848, the great poet stated: “The great error of our time has been to bend the spirit of men towards the quest for material goods… We have to raise the spirit of man, turn it towards conscience, towards beauty, justice and truth, towards selflessness and greatness. It’s there, and there only, that man will find peace with himself and therefore peace with society.”

That is why marching on 22 April, the day before the first round of our presidential election, is not a bad date to recall the strong links between science and democracy.

Emmanuelle Perez Tisserant is a history lecturer at Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales or EHESS, and Philippe Dagneaux is a journalist. Both are on the organisation committee of the Marche pour les Sciences en France.
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