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Marching for Science in Western North Carolina

Luke Shealy

Thousands of scientists and science supporters are expected to gather in Washington, and across the country – including Asheville for the March for Science.  The event has raised questions about whether scientists can and should advocate for public policy.   And as BPR’s Helen Chickering found out, there are some strong opinions here in Western North Carolina.

An internet search for March for Science events in North Carolina turned up two local and very different perspectives.  The first, an article about the Asheville March for Science, in the Citizen Times. To learn more, I contacted the March organizer through the groups Facebook page.   If you are expecting a scientist, you are in for a surprise.

“My name is Luke Shealy, I’m 18 years old and I go to North Buncombe High school. “

The high school senior, who plans to study environmental engineering in college, credits his physics and chemistry teacher for igniting his passion for science.  Shealy says he was inspired to start the ball rolling shortly after plans for a national march were announced.

“I was really passionate about science being available to everyone, and the information we gather being put to use, instead of being hidden, says Shealy.

"That gave me the drive to see is Asheville doing anything about this. Do we have a march? And we didn’t at the time, so I thought maybe we should, and so I tried to start one."

Today, the Asheville March for Science Facebook group has more than 1600 members who plan to march through downtown.  The event, which Shealy describes as a celebration of science and a call to support the science community, also includes a lineup of speakers, local scientists and science advocates .

“We are completely nonpartisan, we are not trying to be a political faction we are just trying to educate people about science and about how they can advocate for science in a way that is not Democrat or Republican, " says Shealy.

“I wish the world was full of people like Luke We need that kind of care and that kind of energy and desire to impact our communities” says Rob Young.

Credit Western Carolina University
Western Carolina University
Rob Young (left), director of the WCU Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines.

Rob Young is geology professor director of the program for the study of developed shorelines at Western Carolina University. We reached him by phone as he prepared to head out to a science conference in Vienna. He also represents the other perspective.  Shortly after plans for a national march was announced, he wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, calling it a bad idea.

“You say action you’re taking is nonpolitical, you don’t necessarily get to make that call yourself, there is another group of people who are viewing what you are doing and they will decide whether what you are doing is partisan or political.  That is the trick of choosing a march as reaching the goal Luke so eloquently outlined,” says Young.

Instead of marching, Young suggests scientists connect with their communities, join local civic groups, and become active in schools, and get to know the audience you are trying to reach.

“So it’s not about changing the minds of those people whose minds will never be changed. It’s about reaching out to those who don’t even know a scientist, who couldn’t put a face on science, and therefore that makes us an easy group to demonize ,” says Young.  

HC: What do you want people get out of this?

“I hope this will be an educational point that people will understand that scientists are people too and that scientists, or science itself, is not an ideology or political faction," says Shealy, " it’s just a method of discovering information around us and figuring out the world that we all interact with every day.”  .

Similar goals, different approaches, from a budding scientist who is marching, and a veteran scientist who isn’t. Young is attending a science meeting in Vienna and says despite his skepticism, he might be watching from the sidelines.

“I think I’d be missing out if I didn’t join them for this celebration of science. Maybe that sounds a bit hypocritical, but whether I’m there or not, won’t change the fact that all of these marches are happening, so I may as well continue the discussion about science communication with my friends and colleagues.”

For BPR news, I’m Helen Chickering

Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.