LYNYRD SKYNYRD’S “Sweet Home Alabama” is a strange choice of song to open a rally of scientists. Written in 1973, the southern anthem was a response to Neil Young’s critique of the barbaric treatment of African-Americans in the South—it tells the Canadian songwriter to mind his own business. Ronnie Van Zant, the lead singer, addresses him directly, singing: “I hope Neil Young will remember, a southern man don’t need him around anyhow”. On the afternoon of February 19th, in Boston’s Copley Square, hundreds of heads, adorned in the pink hats of the women’s marches that followed Donald Trump’s inauguration in January, bobbed along to the beat.
Your blogger suspects that it was the “so blue” Alabaman skies of the chorus, rather than issues of race, that the rally organisers were aiming to evoke. “We want to protect the people and places and things you love,” said Beka Economopoulos, one of the organisers, who works for The Natural History Museum, an activist group which is not a traditional building-and-artefact museum. “Science is what makes sure that the fishing hole is still something you can enjoy when you’re old.”
The tone of the rally was set the previous day, ten minutes west on foot, at a session of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science titled “Defending Science and Scientific Integrity in the Age of Trump”. Gretchen Goldman, Research Director at Union of Concerned Scientists, told a packed room that the Trump administration has already placed gag orders on government departments involved in scientific research, frozen hiring and removed information from websites. But the greatest threat was not that any one law be repealed, or even that any one government agency be dissolved. “They’re looking to dismantle the very process by which we use science to inform decision-making,” Ms Goldman said. “If we walk this process back it’s going to do irreparable damage.”
Despite this fear, rally organisers tried hard to frame the event as pro-science, not anti-Trump. Many among the thousand-odd people gathered in Copley Square were there to stand up for science, they said. The cause was bipartisan, defending science as a bed-rock of democratic decision-making, not attacking an administration that ignores inconvenient truths.
Not everyone in the crowd was on board. One sign urged Mr Trump to “keep his tiny hands off science”. Another simply read “Deport Trump”. Early on, before the speeches, one woman in the crowd tried to get a chant going with a megaphone: “Hey hey, ho ho, Donald Trump has got to go”. It died on the wind, tinny and alone.
The community gathered in Copley, and especially the scientists at the heart of the rally, seemed conflicted about how protesting might best defend science, however. For some, the focus was the Trump administration, the grave threat they considered it to pose to science. For others, this was a new opportunity for science to work for and reach out to communities that feel scientific institutions don’t represent their interests; or, indeed—for coal miners, say—actively work against them.
The rally came two days after the confirmation of the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, a climate change doubter. During his six-year tenure as attorney-general of Oklahoma, Mr Pruitt repeatedly sued the organisation he now leads. His appointment has bolstered expectations that America will no longer be a leader in the global fight against climate change.
For scientists who want Americans to understand the threats posed by environmental degradation and climate change there is a problem. The science is largely intangible; the harm done to unemployed coal miners by environmental regulations tangible. The premature deaths that result from the air pollution created by burning fossil fuels for electricity—52,000 a year according to a study by MIT’s Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment—are harder to grasp. Only the scientific method can offer a handle on intangible harms which are either more complex or dispersed than humans can easily perceive, but that are no less real for that.
The message at Boston on February 19th was not so much for the assembled crowd of believers, but for Trump supporters: let science protect your blue skies. To be attempting to send messages like this at all is new ground for scientific institutions. “Ideally, scientists don’t have to get out of the labs and into the street,” says Ms Economopoulos. For now, many feel they have no choice.
Update (Feb 20): This piece has been amended to clarify the characterisation of The Natural History Museum.