Dr. Thomas M. Michel, a cardiovascular medicine specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, says he hasn’t been politically active since he was a high school student during the Vietnam War.
But when an Iranian researcher he hired to work in his lab was prevented from entering the country by President Trump’s first travel ban in January, he said he felt more powerfully than ever that the country’s leadership role in science was facing an existential threat.
That is why, Michel said, he plans to take to the streets (and play his accordion) Saturday at the March for Science in Boston, an offshoot of the main event in Washington and one of hundreds of such marches across the country that aim to celebrate science and champion its role in advancing the health, safety and well-being of society.
The marches are nonpartisan, but have generated criticism that they threaten to turn scientists into another political interest group protesting the new administration, thereby undermining the credibility of scientific research and one of the organizers’ key messages: that science is apolitical.
But Michel said scientists, though traditionally reluctant to involve themselves in activism, have to take a stand when elected officials are threatening deep cuts in medical and disease research and enacting immigration policies that make it harder for the United States to attract the brightest minds from the around the world.
“Now, we have to say science has a political element to it,” Michel said. “When there are political priorities that undermine our health, we need to step forward and say, ‘This will not hold. This is a wrong policy for the people of our country.’”
Others are more ambivalent.
Cassandra G. Extavour, a Harvard professor of organismic and evolutionary biology, said she plans to speak at a rally in Cambridge on Saturday morning, but is undecided about whether to attend the march on Boston Common.
She said she has concerns that the march’s goals – which range from celebrating science’s successes to making political changes in Washington – are too diffuse.
“There’s been a clear lack of consensus among organizers and participants over what the goals of the movement are,” she said. “For a self-proclaimed social movement... that can be complex.”
Still, Extavour said, she hopes the marches will help break down some of the barriers that separate scientists from society, so “that the perceived division between scientists and normal people might be lessened.”
Dr. David Mou, a psychiatry resident at Massachusetts General Hospital and McLean Hospital, said he understands concerns among scientists who worry that the march — coming in the midst of a season of political protests against the Trump administration — could make science appear to be a partisan issue. But Mou, who plans to speak at the Boston rally, said the goal is not to attack the current administration.
“This should never be science versus politics,” he said. “It should be: how well do you use science to support your political claim, on one side or another.”
Participants in the Boston event hope the march will also showcase and defend the region’s prominence as a global center of medicine, biotechnology, and scientific research.
“Massachusetts has a huge amount to lose,” from proposed cuts to the National Institutes of Health and other federally funded research agencies, Michel said. “This is a threat not only to our lives and our health, but also our livelihoods.”
Gina McCarthy, the former EPA administrator, George Church, a renowned geneticist, and Dudley Herschbach, a Harvard professor who won the 1986 Nobel Prize in chemistry, are among the speakers slated to address the march in Boston.
Elizabeth Thomas Crocker, communications director for the Boston march, pointed out that the lineup of speakers does not include any elected officials. That is a contrast from the women’s march on Boston Common, which featured Senator Elizabeth Warren, Mayor Martin J. Walsh, and other prominent Democrats.
“We hope that part of our message is that science shouldn’t be about being partisan,” Crocker said. “We want our children to be safe and we want a strong economy.”Levenson can be reached at email@example.com