Science Marched On, and Business Missed Out
In more than 600 cities spanning all seven continents, people gathered last Saturday to March for Science. To celebrate the role it plays in our lives. To support its funding and call for “evidence based policies in the public interest.”
That science still needs to be supported and defended in the 21st century begs credulity. We’re centuries beyond Galileo, right? Science put humans on the moon. Science gave us the computer I’m typing on and the phones we’re all glued to. Science wiped out polio and without it, the next flu virus mutation could end us all.
As word of the March for Science spread, I became curious about how a demonstration for and about science would play out, particularly in a small city like Knoxville in a state as “red” as Tennessee. Curious enough to join in a demonstration for the first time since I was a young teenager getting grounded for sneaking off to a Vietnam protest march.
I wondered if the Knoxville march would draw enough people to make any kind of statement. I wondered how different the Knoxville march would be from those being held in the big cities – would it be a microcosm, or an event in a class of its own?
Despite Knoxville’s red state locale, it is, as the chant went, “a science town.” Oak Ridge National Laboratory is just down the road, and the University of Tennessee is very strong in the sciences, so even in the pouring rain, the March for Science fielded a good crowd – 500 to 600 by some estimates, well more than the organizers had even hoped for.
Overall, it seems our local march was, for the most part, a microcosm. Here are a few of my observations.
- Scientists (and their supporters) are civilized. They don’t push, they don’t shove, they don’t litter … and they give great signage.
- The crowd was heavily weighted toward students and interestingly, toward older people. Baby Boomers and empty-nesters with time on their hands, re-energized by current events? Perhaps. I wonder what the demographics were in other cities.
- I’d estimate that fewer than a third of the signs being carried made direct reference to the Trump administration. All things considered, the snark was pretty restrained.
- The speeches had just the right balance of passion, reason and scary facts. They stayed pretty much on point and included discussion of coal ash and clean water – regionally important environmental issues.
A couple of things – actually the absence of a couple of things – gave me pause. First, it was pretty much another case of speaking into an echo chamber and preaching to the choir. There were no spectators at our rally point, few to none along the march route and the federal building where the march terminated was empty. The people who really needed to be listening weren’t. As a pep rally, the march was successful, but whether it accomplished anything remains to be seen.
Second, where were the businesses? As science guy Bill Nye pointed out at the Washington march, science and economic development have always gone hand in hand. So where were the big tech companies, the aerospace giants and the pharmaceutical companies? They were absent here in Knoxville and even on the national roster of endorsements. Yes, a few businesses signed on in support of the march – a local brewer here, a soapmaker there, and a few biotech and life science companies, but virtually none with any voice or visibility.
Where were the big guns, the Apples, Googles, Microsofts – all of which are indebted to science for their very existence? Where were the multi-nationals that claim sustainability as one of their pillars, that are dedicated to science-based solutions for renewable energy, clean water and reducing their carbon footprints? By sitting this out, it seems to me they missed a good opportunity to take a leadership position.
Remember from our Pulse studies, even before the recent challenges to our country’s environmental policies and budgets, 74% of Americans said a company’s environmental reputation impacts their purchase decisions. As recently as February, they were still saying that regardless of what the EPA does, companies should continue to prioritize reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and continue investing in renewable energy.
There’s a solid business case to be made for corporate America standing up for science, and tying that stand directly to their stand on sustainability. In fact, if the government pulls back from supporting sustainability efforts, it will be up to corporate America to take up the gauntlet – not because they are required to do so, but because people will expect it.
Knoxville March for Science image courtesy of Christopher Walker