Although participation in the annual March for Science has fallen since 2017, scientists continue to pursue other forms of activism.

Opinion: The March for Science Fizzled, but It Didn’t Fail

Although participation has dwindled, the event’s true legacy may be the dialogue it sparked around science activism.

The 2017 March for Science was an unprecedented mobilization on behalf of science. In Washington, D.C., and in hundreds of satellite locations, more than one million people (and five penguins) marched in support of evidenced-based policymaking and against the anti-science rhetoric and actions of the Trump administration.

As one of the organizers of the satellite march in Los Angeles, I spent the hours after the march with my team members wearily studying peer-reviewed methods for calculating crowd sizes from aerial footage. Our final estimate was 50,000, which we considered a smashing success. We basked in the glory, and then the pressure was on for our ragtag bunch of scientists, doctors, communicators, teachers, community leaders, and fledgling activists to keep the momentum going.

A common refrain was that the March for Science would be a movement, not just a moment. Different people had different ideas of how to make that happen, but the assumption was that the march would be an annual occurrence.When the March for Science was held again in 2018, however, attendance was much slimmer. About 10,000 people came to the Washington, D.C. march — down from 100,000 in 2017. We saw a similar decrease at the Los Angeles satellite event.

The 2019 March for Science, held earlier this month, was an even smaller affair. Many cities — including Washington, D.C. — didn’t have a march at all. The New York City march, newly designated as the flagship demonstration, attracted just 2,000 people.

Whereas organizers had been elated by the inaugural march turnout, many felt a bit deflated by the smaller numbers in subsequent years. But those carefully counted crowd sizes aren’t really the right measuring stick for long-term success. Though less quantifiable, one of the most pivotal and lasting impacts of the March for Science was the dialogue it sparked around the role of scientists in public policy.

The idea for the march was conceived after the official White House website scrubbed nearly all references to climate change on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration. News of a planned march for science reignited the age-old debate about whether scientists can also be advocates. But this time the question had more urgency and the fresh eyes of a new generation of scientists. In the weeks leading up to the event, the conversation unfolded on the pages of newspapers, on the radio, in academic journals, and at scientific conferences. A groundswell of scientists concluded they could wear the advocacy hat, and then they laced up their marching boots.

But their ambitions went far beyond the march itself. According to surveys, most participants in the 2017 demonstration planned to engage in further activism afterward. A George Mason University study reported that nearly all March for Science participants surveyed planned to take action to advance the goals that brought them to the march. Likewise, 83 percent of all respondents — including 80 percent of the scientists who responded — planned to contact government officials. Similarly, a study out of the University of Delaware found that 84 percent of surveyed participants in the Washington, D.C. march were interested in pursuing online advocacy; 84 percent also said they were interested in offline advocacy, and 72 percent were interested in contacting government officials.

It’s difficult to measure exactly how much of that planned activism panned out over the past two years. However, representatives of some of the march’s partner organizations tell me the event brought more people and energy to their advocacy activities.

One of those partner organizations is the Entomological Society of America, which had been ramping up its science-advocacy efforts well in advance of the march. Chris Stelzig, the society’s director of strategic initiatives, says the partnership helped his group engage new members in that work. The march “was really a boost of momentum, and the pace of our science policy efforts has only grown in the subsequent years,” he says in an email.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) also saw an uptick in volunteer interest in the wake of Trump’s election and the inaugural March for Science. Interest grew so large that the group created entirely new programs to meet the demand, including the Science Watchdogs, an initiative that recruits scientists and experts and provides them with tools, trainings, and opportunities to fight for science. Gretchen Goldman, research director at UCS’s Center for Science and Democracy, says she thinks the march was a “stepping stone” for a lot of the scientists that got involved, and that these new programs are still going strong.

Although the march was primarily motivated by the censorship of and disregard for science at the federal level, some March for Science satellite organizations have also built and mobilized networks around state and local science-policy issues. For example, satellite groups in New Mexico and Idaho successfully fought proposals that would have removed references to human-caused climate change from the public school curriculum. Satellite organizations beyond the U.S. have taken up similar causes, such as protesting against science funding cuts in Brazil and Argentina.

The cultural shift inspired by the March for Science was so tectonic that some scientists leaped from policy advocacy all the way to policymaking. A record number of candidates with science backgrounds ran for Congress in 2018, and at least seven won their seats. Rep. Jasmine Clark went from directing the March for Science Atlanta in 2017 to being elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 2018.

As the appetite for literal marching wanes, what are leaders of the March for Science doing to grow and sustain these other forms of activism? Initially, the national organizers said they wanted to “begin converting the structure they built into the scaffolding for a sort of interdisciplinary congress of science organizations.” Within months, the national organization ballooned to nine paid staff members, but by the time the second national march was held, its other operations and programming plans were still somewhat unclear to many of the satellite organizers, including me.

Today the national organization is back in the hands of an all-volunteer team. In April, the group explained that there would be no march in Washington, D.C. this year because it was taking “this time to continue building needed movement infrastructure.”

As the March for Science reworks its roadmap for the future, it should take a look in the rearview mirror, and closely evaluate what’s been productive and what hasn’t. In other words, it should take an evidence-based approach — and there are signs that the organization is headed in the right direction. “Our main goal is to support and elevate grassroots organizing for science and justice,” Lucky Tran, a member of the national march’s board of directors, tells me in an email. He says they will do this by focusing on organizing, connecting and training its decentralized network of satellites and collaborating with and supporting partner organizations.

While the march breathed new life into science activism, its enduring success will depend on grassroots efforts and on the work of the organizations and community leaders who’ve been fighting for science and justice since long before Trump was elected.

The inaugural March for Science was a galvanizing moment, but the movement belongs to the people.

Rebecca Fuoco served as the communications director of the March for Science Los Angeles and currently works as a climate change media specialist with an environmental group.

UPDATE: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly described the percentage of respondents in the George Mason University study who stated they planned to contact government officials. The story has been updated to correct this error.