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Maryland researchers see March for Science as way to raise public trust, support for discovery

Almost five decades ago, Fred Huemmrich marched on the first Earth Day as a Pittsburgh high school student. Back then, standing up against air pollution was a controversial act, he remembers.

He will make a similarly bold demonstration Saturday in Washington at the March for Science, even though as a career researcher at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, he typically stays outside the fray of policy and politics.

He sees talk of cuts to environmental and scientific agencies in Washington as a threat to future discovery and the next generation of researchers.

"I think at this point we have to stand up to protect the scientific process itself," said Huemmrich, who serves as a research associate professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and uses NASA satellite data to analyze changes in vegetation around the globe.

Thousands of scientists are expected to converge on the National Mall for the march, which is being held on the 47th observance of Earth Day. Organizers called for the event amid what they call "an alarming trend toward discrediting scientific consensus and restricting scientific discovery."

Scientists of all stripes have been on alert since the election of President Donald Trump. He has pledged to strip down the Environmental Protection Agency, shave off one-fifth of the National Institutes of Health budget and also cut substantially from the National Science Foundation and the science office at the Department of Energy, though it's unclear if those proposals will gain approval from Congress.

A White House spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment about the march.

Researchers at institutions across Maryland, many of them reliant on federal support and oversight, will be among the crowd Saturday, if not making up its majority. Jay A. Perman and Wallace D. Loh, presidents of the University of Maryland campuses in Baltimore and College Park, respectively, both released letters Thursday expressing support for the march.

Loh said he plans to join the march, while Perman called Trump's budget proposal short-sighted.

"The shortsightedness we've seen over the last three months undoubtedly threatens science, but science will prevail," Perman wrote. "It always does."

Some in academia have expressed trepidation about marching, suggesting it only provides fodder for skeptics who say science is tainted by a political agenda. But those who plan to march say the explicitly nonpartisan event is an important part of their job of sharing their discoveries with the world.

"Historically, scientists have not told their story good enough," said Russell Hill, director of the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology in Baltimore. "I hope this march will be an important step in improving that."

The march is not billed as a protest of the Republican president — organizers say the "celebration of science" promotes evidence-based science that is used to inform policy, as well as investment in science education. Its website declares goals to "humanize" science and encourage public support for scientists.

In addition to the Washington march, organizers say hundreds of other "satellite" marches will be held Saturday in cities across the country. One of those is planned in Annapolis.

Participants say they are concerned that if they don't speak up, disinvestment and distrust in science could threaten future discoveries.

Carol Greider, director of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University, said she has already seen an impact on young researchers in her lab as NIH investment in biomedical research has failed to keep up with inflation in recent years.

"A number of them tell me they don't know if they'll be able to have a career in science," she said. "If people at Hopkins are already thinking like that, you can imagine people across the country are thinking like that."

Veteran researchers say many scientists are reluctant to engage in advocacy because they're trained to let the facts speak for themselves.

But Greider said that shouldn't be the case.

"In the past, I think scientists haven't been their own advocates very strongly," she said. "I see this as a really positive step in sort of initiating new people into the idea of science advocacy."

Climate researcher Ross Salawitch will attend the Washington march with a group of faculty and graduate students from atmospheric and earth sciences departments at the University of Maryland, College Park. But he said some of his colleagues have shared concerns that he could be jeopardizing future grants by joining the demonstration.

Some suggested that while advocacy is needed, a march isn't the right way to do it. Raghu Murtugudde, an earth systems scientist and atmospheric and oceanic science professor at Maryland, questioned "using Earth Day as a political tool" when it is already established as "a clean and honest way to raise awareness about environmental and climate change issues."

Derrick Lampkin, an assistant professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences who studies changes in Earth's ice sheets at Maryland, agreed it isn't a politically savvy move.

"Frankly, its a futile effort," he wrote in an e-mail. "We need to organize effective lobbying and more importantly we need to be the catalyst of reform in academia."

But Salawitch said he just doesn't understand that view.

"It's important for grad students in sciences to learn they can have a voice and to go speak," he said.

Daniela Tizabi, a 23-year-old Ph.D. student at Hill's IMET lab, will be among those young scientists participating in science advocacy for the first time. She said she had "no qualms" about joining and hopes the event communicates the impact science has had on technology and human health.

So will current and past recipients of UMBC's Meyerhoff scholarships. The Meyerhoff Scholars Program brings together undergraduates who plan to pursue doctoral studies in science and engineering.

Erwin Cabrera, a 2010 UMBC alumnus and president of the Meyerhoff Alumni Advisory Board, said he and his classmates were brainstorming what to write on posters they planned to decorate Friday night.

"We have a responsibility to make sure whatever we are investigating, the truth we are uncovering is distributed to a larger audience," said Cabrera, who is now associate director of a similar undergraduate research program at Farmingdale State College in New York. "I think this is a great platform."

Scientists are also using the march to connect with each other. Groups such as the American Geophysical Union and the American Association for the Advancement of Science are taking the opportunity to offer training sessions to teach scientists how better to communicate their work.

Once the advocacy and training is over, Salawitch said he also plans to help his students have some fun — they're attending a science-themed improv comedy show Saturday night in Washington.

"We're going to laugh at ourselves in the end, which is important," he said.

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