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Canadians march for science

Scientists in 600 countries took to the streets as part of a global March for Science

Barbara Sibbald and Lauren Vogel | CMAJ | April 22, 2017

Thousands of scientists in 19 Canadian cities took part in an international March for Science on April 22 to support American colleagues who are recoiling from proposed funding cuts and anti-science sentiment in President Donald Trump’s administration. 

Since taking office in January, Trump has professed disbelief in climate change, talked about muzzling federal scientists, and proposed cutting $5.8 billion (US) from the US National Institutes of Health budget — more than Canada’s entire investment for all university-based research.

More than 600 marches were held worldwide, including a massive undertaking in Washington, DC. Taken together, this is the “largest coordinated scientific demonstration in history,” said Dr. Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence for Democracy, one of two organizing groups for the Parliament Hill rally in Ottawa. She characterized Trump’s recent actions as “a brazen attack on scientists.”

Today we rally in solidarity with colleagues to the south,” she said. “We march because we know we can do better and we need to do better. The election of Trump was only possible when the public doesn’t know or trust science.” The days of scientists staying in their “ivory towers” are over, she insisted. “Each of us every day must rebuild public trust in science.”

About 300 scientists and supporters rallied on Parliament Hill despite the cool weather. “Some are trying to dismiss this rally as partisan,” James Compton, president of the 70 000-member Canadian Association of University Teachers, told the crowd. “There’s nothing partisan about the health safety and welfare of the public and that’s what science provides.”

A similar refrain was heard at the Toronto rally, where several thousand marched. “Science should never be politicized, but scientists can get political,” said Toronto City Councillor Josh Matlow.

Others speakers highlighted the need to address inequality within science. “This is a world in which women in Canada are now 70% of university graduates, but only 30% of those are from science, technology, engineering and math,” said Eden Hennessey, a data-driven diversity activist completing a PhD in Social Psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University. “Women are also underrepresented in the science workforce and when they’re hired, they earn lower salaries, occupy fewer full-time positions and report greater sexual harassment than their male colleagues.”

Others spoke about a lack of respect and inclusion of Indigenous people and their perspectives in science. “Indigenous knowledge principles offer ancient wisdom that the scientific community needs to build your knowledge,” said Dawn Martin-Hill, co-founder of the Indigenous Studies Program at McMaster University. “We have a great opportunity to learn from the past, reorient our relations, and build a relationship based on mutual respect and partnership.”


Why we marched

Protesters in Ottawa and Toronto share their reasons for joining the global march

“The fundamental challenge is that we are scientifically illiterate as a society,” environmentalist David Suzuki told CMAJ at the Ottawa rally. “We have to realize science is the most powerful force shaping our lives today.” He also pointed that although the Harper government is gone, “all but one of the 12 or 13 candidates for the Conservatives is a climate denier.”

“Our American colleagues are being muzzled now,” said Talia Beech, a scientist with the Department of National Defence and mother of Ryder Beech and Ayla McCallum. “It’s important that we stand together.”

“Scientists need to merge with policymakers; they need to be scientifically literate,” said health economist Sasha van Katwyk. “And scientists need to know what policymakers need.”

Kristin Danko, a doctoral candidate in epidemiology who brought her three children, Julianna (left, back), Elliot (front) and Myles (stroller), works in knowledge translation. “This is my first protest. I’m a bit of an introvert, but I believe in the importance of science for my future, for its role in policy and for my kids. It’s a difficult time to be a scientist.”

“It’s important to bring evidence-based policy back to government,” said respirologist Dr. Ruwan Amratunga (right). “The neglect of logical thought is harmful to society.” liver specialist Dr. Erin Kelly (left) said she attended to promote science and the idea of scientific proof.

“I wanted to march in solidarity with scientists in the US, especially those who are marginalized in the community of science,” said A.W. Peet, physics professor at the University of Toronto. “Science is overly white, male, cis[-gendered] and able[-bodied],” Peet explained. “I’m a trans person; my existence is highly political.”

“We need to have more open dialogue about the value of science and the importance of having a scientifically literate population in a democratic society, and show that investment in fundamental science is a long-term investment that pays off in spades,” said Imogen Coe, dean of the Faculty of Science at Ryerson University.

“Great minds are living on below poverty wages because of how expensive and how long training is,” said Camila Londono (left), recent PhD graduate from the University of Toronto’s Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering. “If there isn’t enough funding, we’re going to lose those brilliant minds.” She was joined by student researchers Teresa Dean (centre) and Elisa D’Arcanglo (right).

“We need to keep government aware that they need to support science,” said Mike McVicar (centre) of Ontario’s Centre of Forensic Sciences. “Things are better now [compared to the Harper years] but that doesn’t mean they’re as good as they can be. The government needs to know people are concerned and worried.”

Photo credit: Barbara Sibbald and Lauren Vogel

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