Accustomed to the quiet vetting of data and methodical analysis, scientists aren’t typically given to promoting their conclusions through bullhorns, preferring to let their work speak for itself.
But on Sunday, several thousand members of the scientific community are expected to take up protest signs to rally against what they view as the Trump administration’s budding war on science.
The unusual display of activism, slated for noon in Copley Square, is part of a larger movement by scientists and environmental advocates in New England and beyond to urge the new administration to support unfettered science, recognize the vast amount of evidence of climate change, and take action on a range of environmental concerns.
“It’s unfortunate, but we feel we have no choice but to stand up for science and defend the institutions that fund science,” said Jacquelyn Gill, an assistant professor of paleoecology at the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute, who plans to speak at the rally and is considering running for Congress.
“This isn’t meant to be partisan or advocate for any particular outcome of research,’’ Gill said. “We’re standing up for evidence-based decision-making, and science that’s done for the public good.”
Like others who plan to attend the demonstration, Gill is attending the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science at the Hynes Convention Center, one of the first major gatherings of the nation’s scientists since Trump took office.
The rally is part of a growing effort by scientists to respond to Trump’s comments that climate change is “a hoax” and his controversial appointments of Cabinet secretaries such as Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who was confirmed Friday as the next administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Pruitt has sued the EPA more than a dozen times, questioned whether human activity is causing climate change, and suggested he will preside over major cuts to the agency.
The demonstration seeks to build on a similar protest in December by hundreds of scientists in San Francisco outside the annual gathering of the American Geophysical Union, as well as open letters to the administration signed by thousands of scientists and academics and rogue Twitter accounts that have emerged to defend the work of government agencies.
Sunday’s rally is a precursor to an April protest in Washington called the March for Science, when scientists around the world will gather to voice concerns about potential cuts to research funding, the effect of travel restrictions on universities, and the deletion of vital scientific data and references to climate change on government websites.
Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard University, compared the fledgling movement to the years after World War II, when scientists such as Albert Einstein spoke out against nuclear weapons.
“We haven’t seen this kind of activism from scientists since the 1950s, when many saw nuclear weapons as an existential threat,” she said. “Many scientists now feel a sense of urgency and a moral imperative to act.”
Although scientists are trained to be impartial and follow evidence where it takes them, they shouldn’t be afraid to defend their findings, she said, especially when they contradict assertions by senior policy makers. Many scientists are reluctant to speak publicly about their views, she said, because they worry it might harm their credibility.
“That’s not supported by the evidence,” she said. “No one, for example, doesn’t believe the theory of relativity, just because Einstein spoke up on arms control.”
‘It’s unfortunate, but we feel we have no choice but to stand up for science and defend the institutions that fund science.’
Beyond the marches, scientists and environmental advocates are supporting a range of other actions designed to parry with the Trump administration.
Local groups such as Mass. Audubon, the Conservation Law Foundation, Sierra Club, and The Nature Conservancy have are crafting opposition strategies, and many are bolstering their staff, raising money, lobbying state and federal officials, and planning lawsuits in anticipation of regulatory changes.
“We think litigation is very important,” said George Bachrach, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts. “We believe cities and states are going to have to lead on energy and environmental policy.”
At the Cambridge-based Union of Concerned Scientists, which represents some 20,000 scientists around the country, officials said they’re planning to step up their role as a government watchdog.
For example, they recently highlighted how cuts to the EPA’s brownfields grant program would harm residents near hazardous waste zones and leave the agency without enough money or expertise to clean them properly.
The advocacy group is hiring and reassigning staff to fight legislation that would overturn health and environmental regulations, encouraging state action on climate change, and working with other scientists to back up scientific data from federal websites.
Like many scientists, Peter C. Frumhoff, the group’s director of science and policy, regretted that he and others expect to spend so much time on the defensive.
“It would be great to live in a world where evidence speaks for itself,” he said. “But we’re mobilizing because that’s not happening.”
He acknowledged that activism is not a comfortable role for many scientists. But the circumstances demand it, he said.
“We would rather be in our labs, doing our research,” he said. “But at this point, we just want facts to have a seat at the table.”
Geoffrey Supran, a physicist at MIT and Harvard who specializes in renewable energy modeling, said scientists tend to be introverts by nature, and that he never imagined himself marching in the streets. But on Sunday, that’s where he’ll be.
“We have to fight for the truth,” he said. “What we’re seeing from the Trump administration is a huge threat-multiplier to problems like climate change. If they do what he said he would do, it could set us on a path to an irreversible catastrophe for the livability of our planet.”David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.