March for Science to celebrate strides made due to studies on health, Earth and space

Today’s Pasadena is difficult to imagine without thinking about science, making it a natural setting for a satellite event to the national March for Science in Washington, DC, and the local one in downtown Los Angeles. Spearheaded by Caltech postdocs, the Pasadena event will be family-friendly fun on Earth Day, Saturday, April 22.

The Caltech Postdoc Association plans a rally, march and outreach day in order to celebrate science, advocate for transparency and the support of science, as well as celebrate ties between scientists and the community of Pasadena. The march begins at Caltech’s Beckman Lawn at 8 a.m. where, after opening remarks, participants will head toward Memorial Park (approximately1.6 miles). After closing comments marchers can visit science booths for information and participation.

Caltech will also have presence at the Los Angeles event with theoretical physicist Sean Carroll as one of the scheduled speakers. Carroll is also scheduled for a panel on science writing at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books later the same day.

“Science should be above partisan politics,” Carroll said. While he acknowledges that science depends upon politics for funding, he noted that “we don’t get to choose how the world works” and science provides “better ways to prevent ourselves from fooling each other.” Humans are not rational animals, he said. “We all have our biases.”

Seniors should be especially concerned. As Carroll noted, “Health care is driven by the health of science,” he said. “In the last few years we’ve made great strides in research” providing “wonderful prospects for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and cancer.”

Scheduled speakers at the Pasadena event include Pasadena Mayor Terry Tornek, Assembly member Chris Holden, as well as Caltech professors Jonas Peters (Bren Professor of Chemistry) and Mary Kennedy (Allen and Lenabell Davis Professor of Biology).

“In order to make smart policy decisions, we need to listen to the scientific community now more than ever,” said Holden. “The Legislature is committed to furthering California’s environmental leadership role and will continue to pass policies based on scientific research that invest in renewable energy and lift our dependence on fossil fuels.”

Tornek thought Earth Day was an ideal time for the event because Pasadena has been affected by the drought and air quality issues.

“We used to make a bigger deal about Earth Day per se,” Tornek said, but lately Earth Day has “felt pro forma with climate change and environmental consequences.” That’s because the state of the environment has become a year-round concern, said the mayor. Thinking about the Earth once a year is passé because it is now part of “everything we do in Pasadena,” he said.

In terms of Pasadena being a green city, “How we acquire and generate power is now the biggest part of what city government is about.” Science and its contributions to the city influence the way we live our lives in regards to conservation issues and environmental awareness, said the mayor.

Marching for science makes sense in Pasadena, Tornek stated, because the sciences “play a very significant role in the city.” Even though nationally the city is known for the Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl, “There is more astronomy done here than anywhere else in the world. Pasadena is the center of astronomy universe.”

Peters used his research group’s web page to post “A Call for Global Free Trade in Science,” because “Science is a global market, one where free trade in the form of hypotheses, results, conclusions, and their applications lifts our collective whole. American science and the technological engine it drives have long benefitted from this global market.”

In a telephone interview, Peters stated that science creates whole new industries but requires a “basic investment without always knowing the end results.” Peters cited Jewish refugee Theodore von Kármán, whose name adorns several local buildings, and Caltech PhD Gordon Moore, who co-founded Intel Corp. Von Kármán came to Pasadena after accepting the directorship of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at Caltech (GALCIT) and was one of the founders of JPL.

According to mechanical and civil engineering postdoc Jason Marshall, the March for Science Pasadena is being planned by about 10 postdoc Caltech students, including Zuleikha Kurji (polymer physics), Tara Mastro (molecular biology) and Allan-Hermann Pool (neuroscience). Pool, Marshall, Mastro and Kurji all heard about the March for Science movement via social media, but none of the four participated in the recent Women’s March.

For visiting scholar Kurji, a postdoc at Washington State University who holds a Canadian passport, the change in political climate makes her worry about the future. “Opportunities to be a scientist are more common in the United States than Canada,” she said. Yet there are visa-holders who have greater worries. “There are people here at Caltech who are from Iran and trying to think about what to do,” she said

Pool, who had previously participated in Occupy Wall Street events while at UC Berkeley, had greater reason for concern, writing in an email, “I grew up in Soviet occupied Estonia in Eastern Europe where research agenda was often dictated by the Communist Party ideology that resulted in scientific progress (not to mention the economy) lagging decades behind the rest of the world. Any similar developments should not go unchallenged and undebated here in the States.”

Kurji, Mastro and Pool expressed concern about the National Science Foundation. NSF Director Dr. France A. Córdova visited Caltech in January and,, according to Pool, “She talked about the current persistent uncertainty over federal science funding and troubling incidents of members of the House [of Representatives] expressing interest in defunding science that conflicts with their political ideology (climate change being a particular bone of contention). Although under any new administration one could expect realigning of funding priorities the direct interference of elected officials with long standing research priorities with a clear public benefit is something that should not go without a broad societal discussion.”

“At times it can be difficult to secure funding for basic research because the obvious benefits to society are delayed,” Mastro wrote in an email. “Many private companies shy away from doing basic research because the investment is high and the immediate payoff is low.”

Yet, Pool notes, “Pretty much all innovation in medicine stems from investment into and discoveries in basic science.”

Kurji also mentioned the Pasadena event is modeled after the January Women’s March as a peaceful celebration. By ending at Memorial Park, people can travel to the downtown Los Angeles event using the Metro Gold Line. Mastro noted, “The outreach portions of both the March for Science LA and March for Science Pasadena are very important because it will showcase local research and the positive impacts it is having on the community in terms of providing opportunities for economic growth, energy solutions, medical solutions and education.”

Caltech second-year physics undergrad Jake Mattison of Northridge also plans to attend the downtown march because he’s heard so much discussion about climate change, which he said portrays science incorrectly.

Mattison welcomes this new shift toward skepticism. But, he noted, “Skepticism without implementation or any useful manifestation is just rejection of reality. When people think that ‘climate change is not decided,’ they really are just hearing about new, insane concepts and then deciding to go with the less apocalyptic scenario.”

The March for Science Los Angeles begins at 9 a.m. at Pershing Square Park. Pasadena will also be represented at the national event by Bill Nye, CEO of the Pasadena-based The Planetary Society, who is an honorary co-chair.