SciComm Cycle of the March for Science

Woman of colour reads her phone in front of a laptop

Over the next couple of days, in the lead up to the March for Science, happening globally on 22 April 2017, I’ll be republishing a few of my articles and analyses of the March here on my blog.

On 13 April 2017, an article in Science Magazine featured the academic research planned about the March for Science, and interviews with one of the march co-chairs. The journalist reported that George Mason University was seeking email addresses of supporters for a planned study.

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George Mason University requests email addresses of march followers: Source screengrab via Science Magazine

Scientists around the world who have been holding the march organisers accountable criticised the ethics of such a proposed study. This eventually led to the organisers requesting a correction from the journalist.

How did this major error happen?

Two days later, on 16 April, the March for Science was forced to issue a public apology after appropriating African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in a now-deleted tweet (below). This was heavily critiqued, especially by Black researchers, who pointed out the hypocrisy of using AAVE when Black scientists had been marginalised by the march, and received abuse for speaking out on inequalities within the march. Black scientists were also ignored when they encouraged the organisers to work with established social justice groups, including Black Lives Matter. Cultural appropriation of AAVE is doubly offensive in given these patterns of exclusion.

These are just two recent examples in a long line of problems. The organisers have established a damaging cycle of communication failures and weak apologies since the March for Science was first promoted.

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SciComm Cycle

Step 1: The March for Science releases a piece of science communication (scicomm). The statement, interview or social media post reproduces problems in science. This includes sexism; racism, ableism; erasure of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual people (LGBTQIA); and other discrimination of underrepresented minorities (URM).

An example of this is from 25 January 2017, one day after the march formally started. Alycia Mosley Austin, a Black woman expert who works as Associate Director of the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience, offered advice for scientists new to activism, noting that the organisers were already making missteps and that they should be working with established social movements.

Another example of a scicomm fail was pointed out by women scientists, on the 27 January, who noted sexist patterns in communication just three days after the march began

Again on 28 January, four days after the march was set up, disability scholar Kim Sauder, noted that the organisers were excluding people with disabilities from their communications and planning. There are endless examples of such problem communication.

Step 2: Minorities and White women respond to scicomm problems, en mass. This sometimes goes on for days, while the organisers ignore discussions for as long as possible. In the meantime, hundreds of URM provide scientific resources and expert advice on how to fix the problem the organisers created. Minorities patiently explain issues and scientific evidence for why this latest problem is damaging. They use the hashtag #marginsci

Step 3: The communication problem becomes so big that the organisers cannot ignore it any longer. They issue statement/ retraction/ revision.

Examples of this include: sexist discussion of the gender pay gap, racist dog whistling, and ignoring accessibility (see the history).  This also includes various media interviews where the march co-chairs and committee members had reinforced and fed into an anti-diversity discourse, by saying that the march is not political and that it is about science – but not scientists. The latter distinction effectively means that discussion of equity and diversity issues in science has been unwelcome.

Step 4: Having finally reacted to critique by scientists, the march goes back into the same cycle, to produce the next scicomm problem. The previous steps are repeated, sometimes within 24 hours. Barely a week goes by without a scicomm fail.

Why does this cycle happen? From the beginning, URM asked the organisers to work with experts to fill gaps in their knowledge. For example, social justice activists; equity and diversity practitioners; and to recruit experts in scicomm and media strategy.

In fact, most of the URM encouraging inclusion for the march via the #marginsci tag are scicomm experts. including Dr Stephanie Page, who established the hashtag, and who volunteered early as a march committee member.

Why do organisers resist this advice? The answer is of course part of the cycle itself: fundamentally, the organisers have shown a profound lack of understanding of the knowledge, skills and contributions of URM. If diversity were truly and actively valued, the organisers would be more responsive and reflective about their actions and missteps.

The discussion about ethics and science communication that led on from this scicomm fail was important, demonstrating why URM have come to distrust the march organisers. In particular, we discussed examples of how social science expertise had been minimised, ignored and dismissed by the march organisers. The fact that the organisers are placing themselves in the position of gatekeeping research about the march, and providing special access to some researchers over others, is an ethical issue that needs close attention.

The Non-Apologies

The March for Science organisers have issued more than a dozen major public apologies for their sexist, racist and exclusionary public communications. The organisers have published individual apologies to three Black scientists (twice to the same researcher, Shay Akil McLean) on 29 January and 16 April.  A chronology of other apologies are listed below.

  • 27 January, on leaving out people with disabilities from the first (of four) diversity statements: “We apologize for our oversight and appreciate you letting us know. Fixing this now!” 
  • 29 January, on second revised diversity statement: “We have listened to your complaints…We are going to be better” 
  • 2 February, called out for gendered language (“guys”) for the second time (first was on 26 January): “Always trying to do better. We value everyone’s inputs and want to make communication smooth across language barriers”
  • 25 February, over two days, for Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day, first asked women to explain the gender pay gap and then used sexist language to ask women to describe why they left STEM careers: “Thanks to everyone who pointed out some problematic tweets we made recently. Language matters, especially when it comes to inclusion. We’re sorry for any harm we caused. We’re listening, and we’re learning.” 
  • 1 March, mischaracterised the theft of Rosalind Franklin’s work in a series of tweets, and then ignored hundreds of tweets from women scientists but appealed to Dr David Shiffman: “Rosalind deserved her own tweet, did you see it? We made sure to recognize her!”
  • 23 March, issued a revision for media interview with then-diversity team leader, which still says that “diversity…diminishes science”: “An article this morning quoted Rachael Holloway and inaccurately suggests that defending science and emphasizing diversity are at odds”
  • 14 April, revision for media interview on ethics of disclosing email addresses to researchers: “Consistent with our privacy policy, we will not share marchers’ personal information with any third parties” (Note that this privacy policy was not made public until after the science community expressed outrage. I have screencapped the website as proof)
  • 15 April, retraction of so-called “non-partisan” tweets that haphazardly referenced the USA’s MOAB missile strike on Afghanistan. “Recent tweets on the March for Science account did not reflect our nonpartisan mission to advocate for science. We disavow those statements. We apologize, and have taken steps to ensure it will not happen again” 
  • 16 April, one week before the march, appropriation of AAVE language: “We strive to do better, and we will do better.”

The AAVE apology in mid-April mirrors the language of their apology about the first diversity statement from 29 January. Both say “we will do better,” but neither apology was followed with concrete action or change. In that three-month period, the organisers have not made progress on diversity. In fact, many women have left the organisation “due to a toxic, dysfunctional environment and hostility to diversity and inclusion,” which was especially difficult for women of colour.

The organisers are hurt that minorities are distrustful of their intentions. A good litmus test of how much damage the organisers have caused in a short amount of time is that, on the same day as the AAVE debacle, a copycat site started publishing anti-diversity blog posts. Underrepresented minorities were immediately critical.

The reason why it was so believable is because it blended seamlessly with the various scicomm mistakes made by the March for Science organisers.

Trusted people of colour from the march committee alerted the #marginsci community that the site was a hoax.

The cycle of scicomm fails has prevailed because the organisers are not truly committed to change. The mea culpas that follow appear as nothing more than non-apologies that are typical in science. “A non-apology is a ‘sorry but not sorry’ statement, when the responsible party feels obliged to make one due to mounting public pressure. It is a statement that has the form of an apology, but there is no contrition or acceptance of wrongdoing.”

The non-apology. A 'sorry but not sorry' statement which is damaging. It demonstrates a lack of understanding for the problem at hand, indicating the individual or organisation are not taking responsibility for their actions
The non-apology. Source: STEM Women

No change

The scicomm cycle and routine apologies demonstrate that, despite saying that they understand that language and diversity are important, the organisers expect to be forgiven because their intention was not malicious. Scicomm and equity and diversity represent two specialised areas of scientific expertise, yet the organisers habitually fall back on lazy excuses (“we are learning”) without any reflection and change.

There is a reason why we do not let first year undergraduate students run a lecture or a lab on their first day, and why we expect them to study for years to be given leadership responsibilities. Science knowledge is earned through sustained study (gaining an understanding of theory and practice), which occurs under strict supervision and evaluation. Students are not even qualified to be in management roles the end of their undergraduate degrees. They must gain other research or applied work experience and work their way up, receiving more training along the way.

Yet this has been the hubris of the march organisers, who treat science communication and diversity work as something they can dabble in, learn as they go along, make mistakes and expect forgiveness. Apologies do not ameliorate the ongoing damage caused to marginalised and vulnerable groups. An apology is an acknowledgement that an organisation has caused further harm. An organisation issuing an apology, especially in connection to a series of miscommunication, needs to take this seriously. A useful apology acknowledges and “owns” the harm, without focusing on intentions (as intentions have no bearing on impact). An apology should also reflect what specific steps the organisation will take to ensure the same mistake will never happen again.

As I write the March for Science is upon us. The organisers are hoping to inspire science policy and communication change. Yet they have dismantled their diversity team by alienating many members committed to making progress. So we remain only ever a stone throw away from yet another cycle of sorrowful damage.

Learn More

See the full conversation on ethics embedded below. A summary of the cultural appropriation of AAVE is found on my Twitter.


Images: 1) screen grab from the interview. Text of note reads: But the team, from nearby George Mason University (GMU) in Fairfax, Virginia, has asked the organisers for access to the email addresses of those who have joined the march online. 2) Large crowd of protest in a park, look forward and carry signs.

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