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March for Science turned into a quest for information

April 5, 2018   /   by Damian Cristodero

John Cook remembers the first March for Science in April 2017 as one of sights and sounds.

The throng of 100,000 people cramming the streets of Washington, D.C., the constant buzz in the crowd, all of which added up to what Cook called an “incredibly energizing experience.”

The march also was an opportunity for George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication to research who was marching and why, the marchers’ perceptions of science and scientists, and what they hoped the march would achieve.

“We wanted to put it on record,” said Cook, a research assistant professor at the center, “to capture all the different feelings of the people who were involved and who supported it.”

The result: A 97-page research report released April 5—nine days before the 2018 March for Science—which categorizes the views of about 21,000 respondents to email questions sent to those on the March for Science’s organizational mailing list.

The report was written by Cook, research assistant professor John Kotcher, assistant research professor Teresa Myers, doctoral student Lindsey Beall, and Ed Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication.

The main findings:

* Though 71 percent of respondents said they had previously participated in a march or demonstration, 88 percent said the March for Science was their first science-related demonstration.

 * Sixty-one percent believe that conditions for scientists are headed in the wrong direction.

* Eighty-nine percent said they hoped the march would increase evidenced-based input into government policy making, and 88 percent hoped it would help sustain public funding of science.

* Nearly all March for Science participants said they were taking other advocacy actions to advance the goals that brought them to the march, including discussing science-related issues with family and friends, contacting government officials and donating money to scientific or political organizations.

“There’s a clear concern among those who participated in the march that science is currently under threat,” Kotcher said. “It is clear people were very motivated. The march was not just some sort of singular event but one manifestation of many advocacy actions they felt compelled to take.”

Kotcher said the survey did not ask about political ideology because the March of Science organization, which provided the email list and is, by design, intended to be nonpartisan. Also, no outside organizations contributed monetarily to the research.

Why is this study important?

For the March for Science, it provides a rich insight into those who have engaged with the organization, Kotcher said.

For the Center for Climate Change Communication, whose research includes how scientists can better engage the public, the study was a way to gauge the public’s priorities.

“It’s important to understand the ways people can mobilize to defend science,” Cook said. “A lot of people don’t act because they don’t know what to do, so understanding what people think is most effective can help empower people.”

Still, there is this: Only 30 percent of survey respondents said the 2017 March for Science would be effective in reducing political intervention into the conduct of scientific research.

Even so, “I think there’s a lot of support for science among the general public,” Cook said, “and I think that’s encouraging.”