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After the March: Science Advocates Prepare for a 'Marathon'
Bill Nye leads scientists and supporters down Constitution Avenue during the March for Science on April 22, 2017, in Washington, D.C.
Credit: Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

This story was updated at 11:47 a.m. ET.

The March for Science brought tens of thousands of science supporters into the streets of Washington, D.C., and to around 500 satellite marches around the world on Saturday (April 22). Now, supporters say, the challenge is to turn the energy in the streets into sustained science advocacy.

After the march, science organizations and universities are doubling down on their outreach attempts. A new advocacy website, called 314 Action, is urging scientists to run for office. The organizers of the Washington, D.C., science march are trying to transition their volunteer network into a new global-outreach movement. Local march organizers are hoping to create grassroots interest in science and its place in policy. [In Photos: The Best Signs from the 2017 March for Science]

"It's not going to take one march here in Denver or a march in Washington, D.C., to really quantify the success," said Charles Ferrar, a public relations professional acting as a spokesman for the satellite march in Colorado's capital city. "It's going to be a culmination of individual scientists and educators, and those who are impacted by science to share their personal stories with elected officials."

From the beginning, the March for Science was bedeviled by controversy over diversity and accessibility, over the appropriateness of scientists taking a political stance, even over the march's sweeping set of goals. The Washington, D.C., march had a suite of goals ranging from funding science education and promoting open outreach to promoting education and supporting diversity. Satellite marches developed their own lists, often hitting the same notes but varying the focus depending on the local community's concerns. In Denver, for example, Ferrar cited beer brewers and farmers as beneficiaries of science who might march; in San Francisco, march organizer Isaac Gendler, a sophomore at San Jose State University, highlighted diversity in science as one of the group's most prominent goals.

Most post-march efforts taking shape focus on the narrower issue of getting scientists connected to the political process. On April 19, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held a webinar, titled "Be a Force for Science: Advocating for Science Beyond the March," that focused on giving scientists tips for how to engage with politicians, the public and the media. The national science advocacy organization has also launched a new website, forceforscience.org, with advocacy news and tools. During the webinar, Francis Slakey, a Georgetown University professor of physics and public policy expert, compared advocacy to a marathon.

"Think of the march as your opportunity to carbo-load before the advocacy marathon," Slakey told the approximately 40 listeners.

Laurie Krug, a scientist who marched in New York City on Saturday, seemed to agree. "I think you're going to see that scientists are going to be more active. We tend to be passive so that we're nonpartisan," said Krug, an associate professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics & Microbiology at Stony Brook University in New York, who researches herpes viruses. "And I don't feel like I am partisan, but I feel like I have to keep the STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] field strong and keep young people interested in research."

At the University of Michigan, researchers are also using the web to train those who want to get involved. Professors there are turning a pre-existing web teach-out series into a science advocacy tie-in with a free class starting May 5 called Stand Up for Science: Practical Approaches to Discussing Science that Matters.

"We face a mountain of information, and we need scientists to be better at communicating it," said Brian Zikmund-Fisher, a professor of health behavior and health education at the university, who is co-instructing the online course. The class is for anyone interested in communicating science, not just scientists, Zikmund-Fisher said. Other long-standing groups, including Portal to the Public, the Alan Alda Center and Compass Science Communication, have their own programs for communications training. The Union of Concerned Scientists held a pre-march training in Washington, D.C., on April 21 on how scientists can effectively meet with their congressional representatives.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing scientist-advocates is how to engage with politics without become partisan. One common criticism of the March for Science is that it is (or will be seen as) a purely political display against President Donald Trump. [March for Science 2017: Why Are Scientists Taking to the Streets?]

"Rather than forcing politicians to accept science, it is entirely possible that the march will do nothing more than provide them with an escape hatch, a justification for the idea that science is in some way biased," Arthur Lambert, a postdoctoral researcher at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, wrote in a representative example of this position, published in Stat. There appears to be reason for this worry: In Denver, for example, march organizers reached out to state and local politicians of both parties, but only Democrats responded, according to the Denverite.

If the march becomes a political trap, long-term advocates will have to dance around the same dangers. Supporters of advocacy were already warning scientists, before the march, against getting entangled in the Republican-Democrat divide.

"Don't go into the party politics," Slakey said. "Just stick to the policy topic." In fact, many of the chants at the D.C. march and satellite marches focused on highlighting the importance of science to the public and the administration: "What do we want? Evidence-based science. When do we want it? After peer review," was one common and popular chant. Some others included: "Trump, Pence, Science is fact. What do we do? Stand up, fight back!" "Make America smart again." "We want data."

Scientists and science-lovers will also have to avoid appearing condescending. Surveys of the public show that scientists still enjoy a lot of trust, said Erika Shugart, the executive director of the American Society for Cell Biology, in the AAAS webinar.

"If we lose the trust or we see a decline in trust, we really kind of lose the battle," Shugart said.

Although many science advocates urge an approach as apolitical as possible, there are some taking a different tact. The organization 314 Action is urging scientists to go out and run for office. In mid-March, the group held its first training in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to groom people with science backgrounds as candidates for political positions. According to Shaughnessy Naughton, the founder of 314 Action, 3,000 potential scientist-candidates had signed up for the training.

Editor's Note: This story was updated to correct the affiliation of the website 314 Action.

Original article on Live Science