Thursday

24th Aug 2017

Thousands to march in defence of science

  • Demonstrators at the Boston Rally for Science, 19 February 2017. (Photo: AnubisAbyss)

Thousands of people in hundreds of places worldwide will take to the streets in support for science on Earth Day, taking place this year on Saturday (22 April), in an event underlining the difficult relationship between science and politics.

The idea of a global March of Science developed shortly after the inauguration of US president Donald Trump in January, amid fears that his term would be marked by disregard for facts and research.

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  • A Nasa picture of Gibraltar.

Some 517 rallies have been registered so far, with the main one taking place in Washington.

But Calum MacKichan, a Scotsman who organises the march in Brussels, said the goal was much broader than just an anti-Trump protest.

"We want to celebrate science and the role it plays in everyday lives, protect facts and promote dialogue between the scientific community and the public," MacKichan said at a press event on Thursday (20 April).

Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, a Belgian professor who is the former vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and Bas Eickhout, a Dutch MEP for the Green group, were also present at the gathering.

They said there was need for scientists to play a wider role in public life, also on this side of the Atlantic.

Van Ypersele welcomed that Earth Day's theme this year is climate literacy, and said scientists should be in broader dialogue with both the public and politicians.

Eickhout, who trained as a chemist and worked as a climate change researcher at the Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, said he entered politics "out of frustration that politicians made so little with science".

"We are pointing fingers at Trump, but we should also point them at ourselves," he added.

Politicians are dependent on research if they are to make good decisions, but many scientists are afraid of actively providing information to politicians, Eickhout said.

"They fear it makes them into lobbyists. But I don't think it's lobbying what you are doing, it's about informing decision-makers throughout the legislative process," he said.

This would help to strengthen EU policies, he said.

The European Commission, since 2001, has been conducting impact assessments for all major legislative proposals, covering the potential economic, social and environmental benefits and costs of each proposed policy.

But Eickhout said the assessments were not as objective as one would think. Rather, impact assessments usually portray the commission's preferred scenario as the best option.

"If I was the commission, I would do the same, so I don't blame them for this. But I blame them for claiming that the assessments are neutral, when they in fact are designed to fit the political interests of those that commanded them," Eickhout said.

Trump's actions could seem like a golden opportunity for green parties, but Eickhout wasn't so sure.

"If you really want to get policies off the ground you need a broader political basis. I fear that in Europe, climate sceptics, who had a sleeping existence, are now waking up again. They see Trump's election as an opportunity," the Dutch MEP said.

The new US president has said the concept of global warming was made by the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing less competitive.

Van Ypersele said, however, that Trump has also shown signs he believed in climate change.

In 2009, Trump had signed a full-page advertisement in The New York Times calling for “meaningful and effective measures to combat climate change", just before president Barack Obama departed for the climate summit in Copenhagen.

His organisation has also used the term “global warming and its effects” when applying for a permit to build protection against coastal erosion for his golf course in Ireland.

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