'Science is Not a Partisan Issue': Docs Take to the Streets
By MedPage Today Staff
WASHINGTON -- Despite gloomy rain and slick mud in the nation's capital, thousands of physicians, scientists and policymakers, raised their signs and voices at the March for Science here and across the nation.
Satellite marches took place in most major cities and university towns. Newsday in New York City reported that “tens of thousands” had gathered there, and newspapers in Los Angeles, San Diego, Chicago, and others likewise put attendance in the thousands for the first-of-its-kind mobilization on behalf of science and research. MedPage Today spoke to participants in three locations.
"This is a march that is telling not only the administration, but the people of America, that we are in a dangerous place," said Richard Pan, MD, a pediatrician and state senator (D-Ca.) who marched in Washington. "When we make laws or policies that are disconnected from the facts, that is the route to disaster."
He said President Trump is "trying to blind people" from the country's problems by cutting funding from key health and science agencies such as the NIH.
Pan also criticized Trump's efforts to validate "debunked myths" about vaccines and autism. "If we spread misinformation about vaccines we'll see plagues [that were eliminated] in the past, come back," he said, pointing to the resurgence of measles in the U.S. and Europe because of "vaccine mythology."
In California, Pan helped pass a law aimed at increasing the state's vaccine rate by striking down exemptions for religious and personal beliefs, according to Time.
Other physicians echoed Pan's concerns. "Unfortunately, Washington D.C. is often an evidence-free zone," said Manan Trivedi, MD, MPP, president of the National Physicians Alliance.
He noted that "health is so much more than what happens in a clinic or a hospital." For example, research on climate change demonstrating changes to coast lines, weather patterns, and migrant populations can influence rates of childhood asthma, or nutritional habits, he added.
Trivedi called the resignation of Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, on Friday a bad omen for healthcare. "On the eve of the Science March, I think that's an unfortunate signal to be sending," he said.
As an intern at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, Steven Sedlis, MD, said he saw as many as three middle-aged men dying every day because of cardiac problems. He said that doesn't happen as frequently as patients are getting proper care, including medications, based on the best available evidence. Sedlis is now the chief of cardiology at the VA New York Harbor Healthcare System's Manhattan Campus and associate professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center.
It took basic research from the government alongside private industry to make that happen, said Sedlis, adding that "drug companies can't know which drugs are really working without [basic research and] clinical studies done by the government.
Both basic research and clinical trials are threatened by potential cuts to the NIH. Judith Hochman, MD, a cardiologist and researcher at the NYU Langone Medical Center, said that the return on investment for NIH dollars would be seen in improved health and healthcare. She said she hoped that the $2 billion increase that was initially slated for NIH in 2017 and the additional $2 billion in 2018 would pass under the new administration.
She also argued that science is not a partisan issue as it impacts everyone equally. "People take for granted the role of science in their every day life ... The fact that we live for decades longer than we used to is amazing, and is a direct result of scientific advances," she noted, citing examples such as the development of treatments for cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
In Orlando, where the march was combined with an Earth Day festival held at a local park, attendees heard from Hakeem Oluseyi, PhD, an astrophysicist and distinguished research professor of physics and space sciences at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne.
"Some of my friends say man can't know everything," said Oluseyi. For example, a man whose doctor predicted he would live another 6 months, but the man lived another 30 years, he noted.
The problem is the assumption that prediction works the same way in all types of science, he said. "If you make a prediction with physics, observation will match your prediction to 16 decimal points. But in life sciences, if I make a prediction of how long somebody will live, how big is that error bar? It's plus or minus a lifetime!"
"You could die in the next second or live another 80 years," he continued. "So you can't compare how long somebody lives based on a doctor's prediction with a prediction I made based on quantum electrodynamics."
"There's a dangerous trend in science communication -- the shaming of people who don't think the same way [we do]," he said, adding that "what we need to do is build bridges with our fellow citizens."
Gustavo Fonseca, MD, a hematologist/oncologist at the Florida Cancer Specialists & Research Institute in Lecanto, said he came to the rally because "it's important to us to maintain the leadership in the world as a country that welcomes individuals who have science in the forefront of their thinking."
Sepideh Khorasanizadeh, PhD, professor of integrative metabolism at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in Orlando, said she marched because "science is the way I think and I live and I work. I'm a mother, I'm a wife -- but I'm a scientist first."
Science is in danger, Khorasanizadeh said, "because of the spread of alternative facts and fake news. I believe cigarette companies invented the style of fake news; they managed to make so much money [even when] everyone knew cigarettes caused cancer."
The companies' methods proved effective "and therefore politicians [with agendas] took that style and spread it to other issues," she said. "Now they want to take the most educated, advanced scientific society and deprive them of healthcare and their basic rights."
Many of the universities and other research centers in this heavily academic city participated in a rally held on the historic Boston Common.
Among them was Massachusetts General Hospital, which put its full institutional weight behind the event. It held its own rally in a tent pitched on the hallowed Bulfinch Lawn, with some 400 staff members, students, and family members, who then marched up to the Common.
Peter Slavin, MD, president of Mass. General, was among the organizers. He told MedPage Today that President Trump's budget proposal and its huge cut to NIH funding was a galvanizing factor.
"It runs so contrary to our mission," he said. The turnout on a cold and rainy New England morning shows "the very strong grassroots view" that the hospital community holds toward the administration's positions on science and research, he added.
The Mass. General group joined thousands of others on the Common who filled its northwest quadrant — march organizers estimated the crowd at 25,000 but this could not be independently verified.
Other attendees from the healthcare sector included medical students, interns, and residents from the city’s many hospitals and med schools.
Boston Medical Center’s chief resident in internal medicine, Chris Worsham, MD, was among a contingent organized by the union-affiliated Committee of Interns and Residents. “Our patients benefit every day from science and research, much of which is funded by the NIH,” he said.
“We have people [in government] who technically are physicians but who don’t represent us in any way,” he said, naming Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, MD, and the GOP Doctors’ Caucus in Congress. “We need to be vocal on days like today.”
Calling the demonstration “a political but nonpartisan event,” Worsham said he hoped Trump would see the rallies on television and “see doctors in white coats out here saying we need science for our patients.”