This post was submitted by Dr. Andrew Tarter, a Gender and Social Inclusion Advisor in the Global Development Lab at USAID.
Valorie V. Aquino—an anthropology doctoral candidate at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque—is one of three original co-chairs of the first national March for Science (MFS) and co-founders of the MFS national nonprofit organization.
AT: Many scientists can trace their initial interest in empirical modes of inquiry to a particular experience in childhood or as a young adult. What initially propelled you toward science, and specifically toward anthropology?
VA: I was born in Manila and moved to the US at the age of six which was a life defining experience for me. In middle school, I received a scholarship to attend summer science camps created to engage minority youth in the sciences, held at Miami University and led by all-minority professors. Some of my favorite memories from that included computer lab, launching bottle rockets, and solving math problems after riding roller coasters. Opportunities like that for youth are so important for planting seeds of curiosity, building confidence, nurturing skills in connecting seemingly disparate subjects, and problem-solving. For my 8th grade science fair, I thought I could tackle the problems of global warming and climate change. Mostly, I wanted to use science to help understand our shared problems and find solutions that would help people.
In college, I fell in love with anthropology’s powerful potential of combining the sciences and humanities to ask and investigate sophisticated questions about our past and to contribute meaningful insights on our present and future.
AT: How did you first become involved in the March for Science?
VA: March for Science (MFS) was born online in January 2017, immediately following the record-breaking turnout and global breadth of the Women’s March, which reinvigorated a potent sense of personal agency for people around the world. Because of sociopolitical developments that I (and millions of people) saw as attacks on education and critical thinking, along with egregious efforts to sideline scientists and research that would improve lives and public health, I felt compelled to take further action. After coming across the newly created MFS Facebook group and website, I became an Admin for the MFS public page and created March for Science Albuquerque.
Within the first week, the first two co-chairs recruited me to be a third and fellow co-chair, and I only had one question: “Do you have plans to make the March for Science a sustained, long-term initiative?” When they said yes, I was excited and rearing to go.
AT: Pulling off something of the magnitude of the March for Science must have been incredibly time-consuming and taxing. Can you tell me what that was like?
VA: The March for Science community sprang out of a viral phenomenon that attracted a combined 1.5 million people within days. It proved to be a new experience for virtually everyone involved to organize on that scale, across time zones, with strangers. It’s also much easier to get people energized about something online than it is to organize online.
In the course of my experiences as a national co-chair from January through April, 2017, I ended up juggling numerous and varied responsibilities that shattered all my prior conceptions of the amount of sustained daily work humanly possible. Some of it included writing partnership protocols and helping build a network of close to 300 partners; helping develop the March for Science mission, vision, principles, and goals; helping fundraise over $1M; co-organizing the DC rally teach-ins with Earth Day Network; organizing several pre- and post-march DC activities, and coordinating a national “Week of Action”, with other volunteers and several partners. Those three months felt like flying and building a plane at the same time. I lost 15 lbs., and some days, I was so busy attending to one thing after another that I would forget to drink water.
AT: There were some initial critiques of the March for Science by other scientists, which resulted in calls to refrain from participation or to boycott the march. These critiques seemed to range a spectrum: from the assertion that the social sciences are already too ideologically biased; to claims that the march would be perceived as too political and would alienate certain segments of society; to the notion that science fails to acknowledge or address diversity concerns. As a woman, an immigrant, an ethnic minority, and a scientist, how was it to be on the responding end of such criticisms?
VA: Being under such constant intense media and public scrutiny was unnerving, and I wasn’t accustomed to doing work with that heightened level or widespread scale of exposure. Some of the critiques reflected concerns and issues that existed long before the MFS movement began. Some were simply unfounded, such as claims that the march would make scientists or science seem “too political.” Not only is there evidence that those fears are unjustified, but from the start, many organizers have been clear that science doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The practice of science – who professionally teaches or conducts it and how they do it, who funds it and how it’s prioritized, who has the power to apply it to policies that affect our communities, where and how and to whom it’s communicated, who gets to see the benefits of it and who is harmed – all lie squarely in the social realm. That reality is why it is incumbent on us who appreciate the potential of science and care about a healthy society and a functioning democracy to get more involved in public discourses and in our civic responsibilities.
At the same time, I understood and intimately related with criticisms about diversity and inclusion in the sciences – issues which grip other areas of society and manifest themselves daily in acute and subtle ways, as many are systemic issues embedded in our institutions and interpersonal relationships. On a theoretical and practical level, I share many of the concerns that were raised, and I constantly strive to better align values with actions, personally and professionally.
AT: What do you view as the unique contributions that social scientists can bring to the March for Science and broader science conversations?
VA: The interdisciplinary nature of social science brings a lot to the table! Particularly useful contributions are the ability to: integrate parts of the sciences and humanities in coherent and relevant ways, “translate” findings and perspectives among often-siloed groups, bring knowledge from different intellectual roots to bear on a problem, and help us imagine alternative futures. Science can give us new technologies and data; social science can give us insights and analyses on their application and consequences.
AT: What will happen with the March for Science now? Is there a long term plan? And how will you keep the momentum going?
VA: I have been part of a team helping to build infrastructure and advocacy tools for the national organization. We formally established the March for Science nonprofit organization and a Board of Directors, and created a ‘foundation document’ synthesizing perspectives, goals, and strategies collected from across the MFS network. We filled staff positions and are actively recruiting for an Executive Director. Staff and volunteers created a beautiful book, with all royalties going toward community grants, including urgent-need, rolling funds as resources allow. This July, MFS will be hosting a science summit in Chicago.
But for the movement to grow, strengthen, and keep going, it will always need to be fueled by volunteers and grassroots efforts. If you haven’t already joined, sign up here: https://www.marchforscience.com/join-the-movement!