Out Of The Lab & Into The Streets! Muslim Ban Galvanizes March For Science

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Interest in the forthcoming April 22 March for Science on Washington DC was already gaining steam when President Donald Trump signed his January 27 “Muslim Ban” Executive Order, and since then the idea of a massive public rally in support of empiricism has really taken off. In the latest development, 166 US biotech companies and other biotech industry stakeholders have signed on to an open letter opposing the Muslim Ban.

To be clear, the letter is not an explicit endorsement of the March for Science. However, the letter does underscore how the confluence of science and social issues has created a powerful force pushing back against Trump Administration overreach.

The March For Science

That confluence began to emerge almost immediately after Election Day last November, when a group of friends on social media responded to the Trump win by starting up a non-profit organization to advocate for women in science.

The so-named 500 Women Scientists had an initial goal of recruiting 500 scientists and their supporters to sign a pledge focusing on climate change as well pay equity and other issues for women. The pledge quickly took hold and garnered 15,000 signatures by the end of January.

From the outset, 500 Women Scientists interwove scientific inquiry with social issues, stating that “we as women scientists re-affirm our commitment to build a more inclusive society and scientific enterprise.”

Also within 24 hours after Election Day, a retired attorney from Hawaii launched the idea of a women’s march to push back against the offensive rhetoric emanating from the Trump campaign.

The end result was the stunning success of the January 21 Women’s March on Washington,  which dwarfed the crowd that showed up for Trump’s inauguration on January 20.

A contingent representing 500 Women Scientists joined in the massive rally along with other scientists, further cementing the connection between science and social issues.

That connection prompted some commenters on social media to test support for a similar march to demonstrate public support for science funding and the free exchange of fact based knowledge.

Within a few days the March for Science began to take shape. By January 25 the idea sprouted a Facebook page with 300,000 likes, with Trump Administration actions against EPA and Energy Department scientists fueling the interest.

On January 26, Scientific American reposted a report from Climate Central about the explosion of interest in the March for Science. Climate Central cited march co-organizer and medical researcher Caroline Weinberg on the issue of inclusion:

Diversity in science, both in the researchers who participate and the topics we are focused on, is a critically neglected area…We fully intend to emphasize diversity in both the planning of and mission statement for this march.

One day later, the Muslim ban happened.

Science And Society

The March for Science was already well on its way to rivaling the Women’s March in terms of buzz. The Muslim ban all but guarantees that the event will attract even more interest due to the overlap between immigration issues and the science community.

That brings us to the open letter from 166 stakeholders in the biotech industry, in opposition to the Muslim ban.

The journal Nature published the letter on February 7. Like 500 Women Scientists, it identifies scientific achievement with equality of opportunity:

The United States has led the world in medicine production for decades, not only because of its ability to finance drug discovery, but also because, more than any other country, the United States represents opportunity regardless of borders, gender, race, sexual orientation or political cast. This has enabled our industry to attract the best talent, wherever it is found…

The letter also warns that the Muslim ban will have far-reaching consequences for a leading sector of the US economy:

At a stroke, the new administration has compromised years of investment in this national treasure…

And, the letter underscores that the impact of the Muslim ban extends far beyond citizens of the seven countries named in the executive order:

Though the ban from the Trump administration is aimed at seven countries, our global employees interpret the underlying message as, “America is no longer welcoming of any immigrants, whatsoever.” They fear similar orders could be issued for other countries at a moment’s notice. They fear being stigmatized and discriminated against, simply because of their religion, irrespective of the nation they come from…

Science vs. Trump

The biotech industry is not the only science based sector to rise up in protest.

Earlier this month the American Chemical Society joined with 150 other science organizations to protest the Trump Muslim ban in a letter to President Trump on January 31. Its letter included this observation:

Scientific progress depends on openness, transparency, and the free flow of ideas and people , and these principles have helped the United States attract and richly benefit from international scientific talent…

The Executive Order will discourage many of the best and brightest international students, scholars, engineers and scientists from studying and working, attending academic and scientific conferences, or seeking to build new businesses in the United States…

ACS issued an even stronger statement on its own behalf on January 30. Referring to its policy on scientific freedom, ACS all but equated the Trump Administration with despotism:

The ACS public policy Freedom of International Scientific Exchange specifically supports the ability of scientists to operate without barriers, impediments, limitations or restrictions to travel, collaborate or otherwise have meaningful discourse.

The ACS statement was originally adopted to allow the Society to intervene on behalf of foreign scientists imprisoned or otherwise constrained by oppressive regimes seeking to compromise the legitimate research with which these scientists were engaged.


Business vs. Trump

ACS bills itself as “the largest scientific society in the world.” That includes more than 157,000 members worldwide along with a network of more than two dozen industry associates.

Among the associates are heavy hitting lobbyists DuPont, Dow, Pfizer, and Bristol-Meyers, among others.

ExxonMobil also shows up on the list, so it will be interesting to see what kind of power former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson can wield on behalf of the science community in his current capacity as US Secretary of State.

Speaking of power, some pundits are questioning the whether or not public protests, however massive, are vehicles of change.

While they’re still trying to figure that out, it’s important to keep in mind that the integration of science and social causes has arrayed some pretty powerful corporate players against the Trump Administration.

In the tech sector, for example, Amazon was instrumental in the lawsuit that prompted a US District Court in Washington State to put the brakes on enforcement of the Muslim ban on Friday evening, February 3.

On Sunday February 5, dozens of other A-list tech companies came together in a rare joint filing in support of Washington State’s lawsuit against the ban (Amazon was not included in this action due to its involvement in the February 3 procedure).

On February 9, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the District Court’s ruling.

Trump has indicated that he will issue new orders this week, so stay tuned.

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Image via March for Science.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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