Charleston's next big march is one for science 

Test Tubes and Protest Signs

click to enlarge Bonnie Cleaveland is heading up the local science march later this month

Michael Wiser

Bonnie Cleaveland is heading up the local science march later this month

Staging a march is more of an art than a science, but that's not stopping Charleston's scientific community from taking it to the streets.

On Sat. April 22, scientists, science enthusiasts, and those who simply care about saving the world will take part in more than 425 marches all across the planet. According to march organizers, the international effort is a response to budget cuts, censorship, disappearing datasets, and the growing threat to government departments tasked with keeping people alive. Leading the charge for Charleston's sister march is Britney Quimby, who along with Steffi Green, Paige Mangan, and Bonnie Cleaveland have taken up the task of navigating the pitfalls of organizing such an event in Charleston.

"My friend Britney Quimby heard about the March for Science in D.C. before I did, and she created a Facebook page for the local Charleston march. At the time, she just said 'Bonnie will be our social science contact.' She didn't ask. She just appointed me," jokes Cleaveland, a local cognitive behavioral psychologist. "So I said sure and then there were four of us that started organizing the march together. It was a really beautiful thing because what happened is everybody just jumped in. I have never organized a march or an event like this, although I've been pretty active in politics over the years. Organizing a march like this is completely new. Honestly, I don't think any of the four of us have ever done anything like this. But it needs to be done."

For Cleaveland, the fight for scientific truth came during the most recent election cycle. With the promulgation of fake news and half truths getting passed around online, Cleaveland grew frustrated by the widespread lack of critical thinking that had become so prevalent. Her first response was to create the YouTube series — "De Facto Science" — with her 11-year-old daughter that not only explains science in terms that everyone can understand, but also outlines the difference between truth and opinion.

"I heard lots of people say things like 'Well, science is just another religion that people believe in.' It's so frustrating that people don't realize that science is a method, not a content," says Cleaveland. "We're taught in school and you learn science as the earthworms that you cut apart or it's geology or biology. I don't think the method of science is really taught very often except the cursory 'This is the scientific method.'"

Then came the Trump administration's 2018 budget proposal. Under the new plan, the National Institutes of Health would see its budget cut by 20 percent. For those who may not know, the NIH is the primary government agency behind medical and health-related research. Major breakthroughs carried out by NIH over just the past 40 years include discovering the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, establishing the first detection and screening method for HIV, and contributing to the Human Genome Project. The NIH is currently funding $34.5 million worth of research at MUSC alone.

"I don't think people realize how we do research into health. I don't think they realize that the government funds a lot of it and that it's researchers at universities that do it and that it has really serious real effect," says Cleaveland. "If people start thinking, 'I'm not going to go into academia because there's not going to be any grant money to fund my grants,' we could lose generations of knowledge."

Along with proposed cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, which could stand to lose 30 percent of its budget, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would also see funding cuts. With offices in North Charleston, NOAA has played a major role in evaluating the threat that rising sea levels have on the Lowcountry. Regardless of your connection to the local scientific community, ignoring the risk that flooding poses to Charleston is a mistake the city can't afford to make.

"There are two things that I think are really important and one is letting the public know how important science is and also letting our legislators know that it's important to us," says Cleaveland. "Just think about Charleston's economy. If you don't care about medical research and you don't really care about people and their lives, if you care about money, you know climate change in itself can be economically disastrous."

While planning a march is difficult in any city, staging an event in Charleston can be especially difficult, namely due to the city's popularity. Those looking to follow the proper channels to hold a rally can find themselves competing with weddings and local events for the perfect location.

"April in Charleston is beautiful, and it's the peak of everything season. So finding a venue for the march was actually very difficult. Honestly, there was almost nothing available," says Cleaveland. "The only thing available was Liberty Square, which is in front of the aquarium. We originally thought we weren't even going to be able to do a march — that it was just going to be a gathering. We were going to do it at Liberty Square, but Liberty Square is federal property and we couldn't get a permit there."

Cleaveland says she understands why the group encountered opposition when trying to receive a permit to rally in the federal park. While Charleston's March for Science organizers are hoping the event will be as nonpartisan as possible, what the group is marching for can be seen as politically leftist.

"I think that's something that needs to be overcome because obviously whether you're a Republican or a Democrat you need fresh air and clean water," says Cleaveland. "We couldn't get the permit originally for the bigger part of Liberty Square where we were going to have booths and speakers and all of that. But what was available is a First Amendment area at Liberty Square. So that's what we ended up getting the permit for. What that means is we can't have electricity. We can't have a stage. It's a much smaller area. But it was literally the only thing available. But it's going to be fabulous. I'm really pleased with it."

With their destination set for the march, the organizers borrowed an idea from Charleston's recent Women's March by asking participants to meet in three locations downtown — the Charleston Visitor's Center, Four Corners of Law, and Marion Square — before beginning their march to Liberty Square. Those taking part in the march are asked to share their experience with legislators online using the hashtags #sciencemarch #marchforscience and #marchforscienceCHS.

"We want them to see how many of their constituents really care about science and about climate change. This administration may want to scrub all mentions of climate change and stop the funding for clean energy and climate-change initiatives, but that is not what the people want," says Cleaveland. "They don't want that in Charleston and I don't think they want that anywhere in the world. Our legislators need to know that if they don't fight the Trump administration on these drastic cuts to NOAA and NIH and other agencies, that we will vote them out of office. We hope it doesn't come to that."

As more participants register for Charleston's March for Science online and donate to the cause, march organizers hope that this event will lead to more unity among the area's scientific community — because only by joining together can they send a clear message to state and national officials.

"It's hard when you're busy planning something like this to think into the future, but we have a little bit. One of the things we have now is a huge list of emails of people and organizations who are interested in science and advocating for science. It would be really nice if scientists communicated with each other across diverse fields. We do tend to get in our silos and talk with our own kind, but what I'd like to see is biologists talking to chemists talking to engineers and mathematicians and just creating some synergy in that way and some power with our legislators."


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