Why the March for Science was really about the future of higher education

This article originally appeared on the Helix Education blog on May 2, 2017.

Marches are back in fashion of late, and the latest high-profile march had a notable relation to higher ed. Tens of thousands participated in the recent March for Science, fighting for a world in which rationality and objectivity rule the day. Saturday’s march, the latest in a battery of widely-observed social demonstrations, publicized the need for more scientific literacy in government and the need for continued federal funding for science. The march touted science as “a pillar of human freedom and prosperity.” Does any of this sound familiar?

This fight was eerily similar to the fight higher education has been engaged in for decades. Something of a microcosm of the greater educational landscape, the term “science” in this event could easily be swapped with the term “higher education” without losing context or meaning. The messages of the march are old hat to veteran education professionals, particularly those at the collegiate level. These messages–concerns with a lack of data-driven policy in Washington, decreased access to governmental funding, and an understanding of science’s role in society–are hardly applicable to this field alone.

Data-driven policy

While supportive of the event, Harvard professor Andrew Jewett wrote in a recent Atlantic article that the march downplayed the political acumen necessary to truly utilize science in public policy. Jewett writes, “The movement’s rhetoric suggests that if governments simply fund and heed scientific research, the world will march steadily toward peace and prosperity.” He then goes on to point out that science alone isn’t enough, you must work within political realities to get stuff done.

The same is true—are you ahead of me?—of higher ed.

Consider the conversation around data intelligence in higher ed. Many HE professionals recognize the need to more fully utilize data in a digital world, and there’s no excuse not to when viewing it from a purely scientific standpoint. The more data you incorporate, the better your decisions will be. End of story.

Yet still, there are others reticent to throw themselves at the integration of big data at an institutional level, especially in the realm of predictive analytics. Questions of ethics and deployment constantly tint this debate, introducing the political and humanistic realities we ignore at our peril. So while many higher ed marched for science to fight for a data-driven political future, the irony is not lost that many others in the space have been reticent to embrace a data-driven political future in their own backyard.

The truth, which Jewett also gets at in his article, is that this isn’t an either/or scenario. Science and data are absolutely necessary to inform decisions and ground institutions (political, social, educational) in reality. Yet the political and human realities are equally vital to respect and work within. The recent flood of findings from such fields as behavioral economics show that human beings are at the mercy of emotional and biological systems that keep us from making purely rational decisions. It isn’t either science or irrationality. It isn’t either data or convention. It’s a dialectic, a constant push/pull between fact and emotion, humans and numbers. Only when we marry data and science with the nuances of human relationships can we push our institutions for their highest expressions.


One of the most prominent themes touted at the March for Science hinged around funding. Largely a response to budget proposals put forth by the Trump administration, scientists at the march remarked on how decreasing scientific research funding contributes to a halt in scientific progress, a loss of institutional memory, and “years-long negative trends” related to “an increasingly competitive environment [that leads to] sloppier work and a ‘bad culture’ within research” (see this article.) And science isn’t the lone educational victim of decreased funding —governmental institutions, especially state governments, have continually defunded higher educational organizations for years, leaving them more reliant on tuition to cover their costs.

I am unoriginal in mentioning that higher ed has battled decreased funding for the better part of the 21st century. While federal funds largely targeting the individual student have increased slightly since 2000, state-level support for institutions have seen a notable decline in that time. This has shifted the onus of financial support for institution largely onto the backs of students, shifting the financial landscape of higher education from what author Ben Horowitz would describe as peacetime—a time of greater stability and prosperity—to wartime—a time marked by greater financial instability.

Underlying the issue of funding for both science and higher ed is a certain nearsightedness among policy makers. Whether it’s true or not that “we’re selling out our future essentially for the sake of weapons,” as one protester remarked, there is no doubt that a decrease in funding increases pressure to simply stay afloat in the short term. And many higher ed institutions, particularly those in the smaller, nonprofit category, have felt this pressure in a need to consistently increase enrollments.

Role of higher ed in society

Arguably the March for Science’s main goal was to build acute awareness around the role of science in society at large, and the manner in which science enters into public discourse might be partly to blame for this devaluing of science. In his Atlantic article, Andrew Jewett cited a 2004 essay that “noted that ‘scientized’ political issues—most notably, the climate debate—generate particularly sharp controversies precisely because the participants can focus exclusively on questions of scientific validity while obscuring the values and interests that shape their positions.” Thus, many science professionals have felt on their heels for years, struggling to substantiate the worth and validity of their work.

In this desire, science is particularly kindred to higher education. As noted in the 2017 Survey of College and University Presidents, only 12 percent of university presidents surveyed strongly agreed or agreed that most Americans have an accurate view of the purpose of higher education. Stories of rising tuition costs and the student loan debt crisis likely contribute to this decreased confidence in higher ed.  

Yet last year’s A Primer on the College Student Journey did its part to vindicate the role of higher ed. This report pointed out that “evidence for the United States indicates the rate of return on investments in attending higher education has been higher in recent decades than it ever has been in the past.” The earnings of the average four-year college graduate exceeded those of a typical high school graduate by more than $21,000, and “evidence indicates that college experience continues to be positively associated with better health, greater civic activity, and other non-monetary benefits.” Sounds like a “a pillar of human freedom and prosperity” to me.

There were many reasons people marched for science last weekend, and many marchers echoed challenges and frustrations familiar to professionals in higher ed. Yet at the core of every movement is a great deal of hope, hope that the challenges faced are not insurmountable. And if I can offer a maxim to both those in science and in higher ed who continue to keep hope that progression is possible, it would be a line sung by the great folk singer José González. “There is a truth and it’s on our side.”