April 26 2017 01:11 PM

March for Science brings activism with an attention span to state Capitol

There have been heady days of political protest in Michigan’s history, but none as heady as Saturday’s March for Science.

On the Capitol lawn, near the statue of Gov. Austin Blair, a woman carried a huge, detailed diagram of glycolysis, the process by which the body breaks down sugar, using color-coded sticky dots for the various molecules.

“It’s only the first half of the process,” she cautioned.

Glycolysis is what gives you energy.

Judging by the throng of some 2,500 scientists and supporters, assembled in Lansing to push back against the antiscience policies and rhetoric of Donald Trump and his administration, there’s a lot of glycolysis going on in the scientific community.

One of Saturday’s speakers, science advocate Alec Findlay, said it was the first time scientists and allies have taken to the streets “to collectively protest the misuse and rejection of their findings.”

In the era of alternative facts, threading through the throng of marchers and scientific signs was like walking into an alternate reality — reality.

The cool May air was chock-a-block with periodic tables of the elements, large and small, classroom quality and hand made. The sky swirled with atoms and molecules, equations and formulae — including the process by which yeast ferments into beer.

There were plentiful puns on “solutions” (political and chemical) and “resistance” (political and electrical).

Among the most popular icons of the day were Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine, Carl Sagan, Bill Nye (the Science Guy) and Einstein, but Mr. Spock and Beaker of the Muppets made appearances as well.

Speaker Abdul El-Sayed, a 32-yearold Rhodes Scholar, talked of an ongoing “war on science.”

El-Sayed was youngest person to head the Health Department of a major city (Detroit) and is now a candidate for governor of Michigan.

“Science allows us to make good decisions,” El-Sayed declared. “I thank God every day we don’t see the kind of polio that we had just 70 years ago. That’s because we had courageous scientists who looked problems in the eye.”

Gretchen Whitmer, a Democratic candidate for governor of Michigan and the afternoon’s last speaker, co-opted a slogan from one of the signs to open her speech.

“It’s time to make America cogitate again,” Whitmer said.

She cheerily channeled the frustration felt by the assembled scientists and friends. “I can’t believe we have to march for science, but we do,” she said.

Tucked into the throng on the Capitol lawn were Betty Pritchard, a retired mathematician, and her husband, Mike, a retired teacher, who drove to Lansing from Algonac.

When Whitmer said she was seeing people who had never come out to rallies before, she was talking about people like the Pritchards.

“We’ve never been political activists,” Betty Pritchard said. “We went through the Vietnam era and never did anything.”

But she said she has had it with “the denial of scientific fact, particularly as it relates to the environment, climate change.”

Many speakers and marchers at the rally worried about the crucial data being wiped from government websites and databanks.

“The scientific process is very open,” Betty Pritchard said. “It’s tested by other scientists. Just saying something doesn’t make it true.”

Drastic cuts proposed for the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institutes of Health, Great Lakes cleanup funds and other federal programs energized the marchers, including the Pritchards.

“They are not financially supporting the scientists,” Mike Pritchard said. “We have to be concerned about the Great Lakes.”

Listening on the lawn, Pat Grauer, a retired medical writer for the MSU College of Medicine, held a sign that urged the reconciliation of science and faith.

Grauer has worked closely with some of the world’s foremost scientists, including MSU’s Justin McCormick and Veronica Maher, two world renowned cancer researchers. (Maher died only this week.)

“They’re all highly disciplined, they work 80, 90 hours a week and spend a great deal of time scratching for the money to do what they do,” Grauer said. “It’s terrifying for me to see what could happen to lifelong work that can be truncated for lack of funding.”

Like all of the other speakers and marchers, she was outraged over the Trump administration’s lack of interest in climate change.

“If you don’t believe what 97 percent of scientists say in a field, you’re not going to believe anybody,” Grauer said.

The crowd cheered when speaker Madison Hall, a conservation biologist specializing in the polar regions (and polar bears) and Ph.D. candidate in the fisheries and wildlife department at MSU, called himself a “science patriot.”

Hamilton fired up the crowd like an old school preacher, painting vivid pictures of the hell that awaits if climate change is left unchecked, from coastal flooding to mass exodus of inundated refugees, rationing of food and other necessities and even a second real estate crash.

Other speakers lamented that respect for the hard work of scientists seems to be eroding. Among them were speaker Laura Vosejpka, or “Dr. V.” a chemist and 30-year science teacher. “At best, our data is challenged; at worst it’s ignored and treated as an opinion,” Vosejpka said.

Rachel Morris, a biomedical lab diagnostic program at MSU, stood in a sunny spot near the Blair statue as she listened.

“I’m done with the idea that ignorance is OK,” Morris said. “We work in hospitals. We save lives every day. This is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this, but I think it’s important to be here.”

Despite a crying need for medical technicians, funding cuts made it hard for Morris to set up a lab, even before the advent of Trump.

“I don’t practice research right now because of the funding situation and it’s only getting much, much worse,” she said. “People don’t know what we do because we’re in the back of the hospital. Nobody sees us in the lab but we give data to doctors that they base decisions on every day and sometimes we help them interpret it.”

Not all the speakers were firebrands like Hall, but the more rally was a rare chance to witness a nearly extinct animal — a large crowd with an attention span.

When MSU science and ethics professor Kevin Elliott called for openness in scientific research, including disclosure of who is funding which projects, his teacherly, plodding delivery didn’t draw the slightest groan.

The science people may have been angry, but they were polite. A bicycle cop chatted with folks at the perimeter, not even bothering to watch the proceedings.

The only near-disaster happened when a gigantic paper airplane almost pierced the flanks of a handsome spotted dog wandering the lawn.

“Sorry,” the owner of the plane cried out. Air currents defy predictive models.

“No problem,” the dog’s owner said. He cheerfully moved the dog closer to the sidewalk to make room for science.