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April 21, 2017

Why some medical groups are taking to the streets

Daily Briefing

More than two dozen U.S. medical groups will participate in the March for Science this Saturday—timed to coincide with Earth Day.

'Science, not Silence'

The march's main event is scheduled take place in Washington, D.C. Before the march, there will be teach-in sessions and a four-hour rally. Among the speakers are:

  • Bill Nye the Science Guy;
  • Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who helped expose lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan; and
  • Lydia Villa-Komaroff, who helped produce insulin from bacteria.

Additional marches will be held in more than 400 locations throughout the world, including U.S. cities including Boston, San Francisco, and Oklahoma City. More than 220 science organizations have voiced support for the event, according to the New York Times, and more than 170 groups and organizations intend to march.

Medical groups join the march

Medical groups that will participate in the event include the:

  • American Academy of Family Physicians;
  • American Academy of Pediatrics;
  • American Association for Cancer Research;
  • American Society of Hematology; and
  • American College of Physicians (ACP).

In an editorial titled "Alternative facts have no place in science," published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, ACP urged colleagues in the medical community to participate in the march. According to the Los Angeles Times' "Science Now," ACP cited several areas of concern as reasons for participation, including:

  • Climate change, which ACP said has adverse effects on human health that include respiratory disease, heat-related conditions, vector-borne disease, and food and water security;
  • The "antivaccine lobby," which ACP said has garnered support from "political leaders who echo its 'alternative facts' about vaccines," consequently putting people at increasing risk "for illness and death that vaccines had previously prevented";  and
  • Guns, with ACP arguing that lawmakers "ignore" mounting evidence "shows that guns do not make U.S. citizens safer but are actually associated with increased risk for suicide, homicide and injury."

ACP also voiced concerns about Trump's proposed NIH budget cuts, as well as his proposal to end the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality—moves that ACP said could deter young people from pursuing careers in medical research. ACP concluded, "Good science cannot occur and its rewards cannot be reaped when we choose to pursue only the data and knowledge that seem to support our ideologies and denigrate the rest as 'fake.' Science doesn't work that way."

Supporters cite a range of motivations

Health care providers, scientists, federal employees, and professors who support the march have expressed a range of motivations, such as wanting to show the public what would be lost if the government did not support scientific research and the belief that government scientists deserve greater public respect, the Times reports.

For instance, Nadia Lelutiu—a laboratory manager working in vaccine research at Emory University's School of Medicine, who had never been involved in a public demonstration—said she joined the leadership of the March for Science Atlanta because she said it was time scientists "made some noise."

And Hanna-Attisha said that her work as a pediatric physician in Flint prepared the way for her advocacy efforts. "Pediatricians care for a population [who] can't speak, can't vote ... It is your role to be an advocate."

Daniel Bullock—a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Boston University, who will march with his wife and son in D.C.—said he thinks the march could help scientists better reach out to the public. "The march is a first chance to work on how to frame key messages and how to organize a nationwide campaign to broaden understanding of inconvenient truths that are being ignored by many policy makers," he said.

Seun Ajiboye, a science policy analyst for the International and American Associations for Dental Research, said she hopes the march will mobilize the public to support science funding. She said, "People need to be aware that the quality of life and life expectancy they enjoy are largely due to scientific advances and the investment of the U.S. in the sciences."

Some voice concerns

However, some in the scientific and medical community worry that the "activist approach" could have negative consequences. Melissa Flagg, who served worked as a deputy assistant secretary of defense for research in the Obama administration, said the march was creating a "you're with us or against us" mentality around research.

Joe Funderburk, an entomologist at the University of Florida, similarly voiced concerns about the Entomological Society of America's endorsement of the march, which he said he could undermine the credibility of its members. "I, like many scientists, am asked to provide science information and knowledge to policy makers," he said. "It must be free of bias. It must be free of political passion." (Preidt, HealthDay/U.S. News, 4/17; Netburn, "Science Now," Los Angeles Times, 4/17; St. Fleur, New York Times, 4/17; Roston, New York Times, 4/17; Achenbach et al., "Speaking of Science," Washington Post, 4/20). 

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