For Congress, March for Science is a Democratic event

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The House of Representatives science committee talks with astronauts aboard the International Space Station in 2014.

NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Organizers of the March for Science have deliberately avoided reaching out to U.S. elected officials, saying that they want the rallies to be apolitical. As a result, few members of Congress will be participating in Saturday’s main event in Washington, D.C., and at hundreds of satellite marches across the country.

And those who do will be Democrats. Republican legislators appear to be ignoring the chance to speak up for science.

“I’d be surprised if any Republicans participate,” says Representative Jerry McNerney (D–CA), one of only two House of Representatives members with a science Ph.D., who will be speaking at the San Francisco, California, march. “They may feel that they are on the receiving end of the protest.”

McNerney is one of nine Democrats on the House science committee who expect to march on Saturday. Two legislators will attend the Washington, D.C., march: One is Representative Bill Foster (D–IL), a former researcher at the Department of Energy’s Fermi National Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois (and the other Ph.D. scientist in the House). The other is the vice–ranking member of the committee, Representative Don Beyer (D–VA), whose district borders Washington, D.C.

Seven other members will march with their constituents. (Congress is wrapping up a 2-week spring break.) That list includes the top Democrat on the panel, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), who will be in Dallas, Representative Suzanne Bonamici (D–OR) in Portland, Representative Paul Tonko (D–NY) in Albany, and Representative Jacky Rosen (D–NV) in Las Vegas. Six members have opted out, according to a ScienceInsider survey of all 16 Democrats on the committee, and one member could not be reached before press time.

Their support of the march is not in question, however. The committee’s entire Democratic contingent has co-sponsored a resolution Johnson introduced today that backs the effort. ScienceInsider has found one U.S. senator—Richard Blumenthal (D–CT)—who also will be participating, speaking at the rally in New Haven.

In contrast, the 22 Republicans on the House committee aren’t even talking about the events, much less attending one. The committee chairman, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), did not respond to repeated queries for his thoughts on the march. Ditto for the head of the committee’s research panel, Representative Barbara Comstock (R–VA).

Representative Randy Hultgren (R–IL), whose district includes Fermilab and who is a frequent advocate for basic research, will be talking about the importance of science on Saturday. But it’s as host to a group of high school students participating in his STEM Scholars program. And the timing is coincidental, says his spokesperson, Jameson Cunningham. Asked for his boss’s view of the march, Cunningham said only that “he hopes it is productive.”

One of the Democratic no-shows, Representative Daniel Lipinski (D–IL), says a scheduling conflict prevents him from participating in the Chicago march but that he supports the movement. The ranking member on the research subcommittee, Lipinski laments the fact that the science committee has become so partisan that even a march to uphold the principles of open inquiry and evidence-based policy is suspect.

“I think Republicans automatically see it that way,” says Lipinski, who says he has spoken with a few colleagues across the aisle who might otherwise be favorably disposed to the march. “They view it as an anti-Trump rally. And if they participate, they could be hammered in their next primary.”

McNerney thinks organizers of the march have been disingenuous by asserting their neutrality. “It’s a political rally, and they should acknowledge that,” he says. Still, he believes the new administration’s proposed cuts to research and its environmental policies are fair game. “It’s an indictment of their willingness to go along with these ideas,” he says about Republicans on the committee.

For McNerney and other Democrats backing the march, a successful march is one in which participants do more than just show up on Saturday. “Numbers are important, and low turnouts would be an embarrassment,” he says. “But what I tell scientists is that they need to stay energized. Everybody does fly-ins [when a group comes to Washington, D.C., to lobby for its issue], but rather than having 20 people on the Hill, I’d like to see 500 people engaged locally, attending town hall and city council meetings, and maybe some of them would decide to run for office.”

Lipinski believes the public is likely to judge the outcome based on what it reads and hears from the media. “If the sound bite on the local news is criticism of Trump, then that’s what they will think about the march,” he says. “But the real point is to emphasize why investing in science is so important to the country, to our economy, our national defense, and our well-being. And that’s a much harder message to get across.”

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