March for Science in Brussels

This Saturday, all over the world, people are taking to the streets to protest in favour of scientific research. Many fear that greater travel and residence restrictions pose a direct threat to scientific research and are keen to show the world how important scientific research is to our daily lives. Over 400 marches are being staged today. In Belgium countless prominent scientists will be joining in. Uta Neumann spoke with one of the organisers of the Brussels march, Charlotte Thorley.

Why are you demonstrating on 22 April in Brussels? What is the aim of the demonstration in Brussels and why Brussels?

We're marching in Brussels on 22 April to support science, and to show policymakers around the world that people care about science. This is particularly important right now because of the changes in global politics, and has been sparked by the policy changes made by the Trump administration. Trump's cuts of funding to the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies are a problem in terms of the reduction of services provided to the American public. But they also make it clear that his policies are founded purely on conviction or political game playing, and discount the stacks of evidence that researchers around the world have provided demonstrating that these services are needed. We need policies based on robust evidence to enable us to all live healthy, high-quality lives, now and for future generations.

What could Trump's policies mean for European scientists?

European scientists are global scientists. The nature of science is international, and the best research is done in research groups that include people from a variety of backgrounds, chosen for their expertise not where they were born. Trump's travel restrictions create immediate problems for this, as scientists are not easily able to maintain their collaborations in America or with American scientists. But longer term my main concern is that the public will follow where Trump leads, not just in terms of his attitudes to international movement, but also in the way that they value science. Whilst the Science Marches have been prompted by the actions of the Trump administration, his is not the only government currently looking to promote populist values, something I am very aware of having only just moved away from the UK after the Brexit vote. If international governments do not support science, and use robust research to underpin their policies we could be faced with a wider public that do not trust science, that do not want to support science and research funding.

What do you think will be the impact of his policies on climate protection? What will be the consequences for other scientific areas?

Trump has stated repeatedly that he doesn't believe in Climate Change, and his policies reflect this. I am especially worried that he will pull out of the Paris agreement and that other countries will follow America's lead. This would mean that any kind of coordinated global response to climate change would effectively grind to a halt, and drawing up a new agreement that the US is happy with would be next to impossible. This would have disastrous consequences for the future of the planet.
I am also worried about how these policies affect people on a day to day basis. Pushing them to dismiss the evidence they are being shown in this area could lead to people dismissing evidence in other areas such as medicine. What if there were people who couldn't make effective decisions on their own healthcare because they didn't believe in what modern evidence based medicine could offer them? Their conditions would not be treated as well as they could be and this could lead to real consequences for their health. Science affects all of our day to day decision making more than we realise, and we believe that political decision making should reflect this.

How can the European Union react to this? What should the EU do?

The EU should continue to fund research, and to showcase the impacts of this work. Research funding should remain a significant priority through the next financial review. But importantly, the EU should stand up for the ideals of research, encourage international cooperation, and be responsible and inclusive in the way research is done. Transparency is key; the public need to know what research they can trust, and this means showing the review processes it has been through. It isn't enough to just make science "open"; involving publics more in the way research is done will help to build public trust in science.

How can each European country e.g. Belgium contribute?

I would make the same suggestions to individual countries as I do to the EU. In Belgium we have a complex research funding system, but one that values both basic science and applied science. Not only does this support need to be continued, efforts are needed to make sure that our publics feel the value of this research. There are many excellent science communication and outreach activities run through our universities and research centres. Supporting this, and building a culture of responsible research and innovation, is essential.

The March for Science in Brussels leaves from the Albertinaplein near the central station at 2PM.