Researchers organized a poster making on the patio of a San Diego cafe Thursday, two days before the March for Science.

Jon Cohen

At a San Diego poster-making party, the Trump elephant in the corner

“Who do you side with: scientific community or Donald Trump?” read the Facebook headline of a 15 March article in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

In a comment, “March for Science SD” wrote that the headline “unfortunately does very little to help our nonpartisan message.”

Many organizers of March for Science events around the world have gone to some lengths to stress that the event is not about U.S. President Donald Trump, and the issues at the fore obviously transcend political parties. But there’s an inconvenient truth: Had Trump not been elected; filled U.S. government slots with people hostile to climate change, evolution, and environmental protection; and crafted a budget that proposes slashing funding for traditional bipartisan darlings like the National Institutes of Health, there would not be more than 600 cities in 69 countries marching for science tomorrow. And clearly there was a Trump elephant in the corner at a small poster-making event held in San Diego on the evening of 20 April.

Three dozen people gathered on the patio of the Bella Vista Social Club and Caffé, a popular hangout at the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine that sports an OMG ocean view. It is neighbored by the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, the Scripps Research Institute, and a dozen biotechs. The poster makers included lab techs, undergrads, Ph.D. hopefuls, postdocs, and nonscientists. The funniest, most provocative signs all had unsubtle anti-Trump references.

Jon Cohen
Jon Cohen
Jon Cohen

Jessica Bruhn, a postdoc at Salk who helped organize the event, acknowledged that her own institution was on the fence for some time about supporting the march because it did not want to engage in partisan politics. “There was a fine line we were dancing at the Salk,” said Bruhn, a structural biologist who studies HIV. “The final straw was Trump’s proposed budget.” Salk President Elizabeth Blackburn indeed issued a strong endorsement of the march in the wake of the budget proposal, which “deeply appalled” her, she wrote in an open letter.

Scripps grad student Bryan Martin, another structural biologist, took a different tack. He said focusing on Trump obscures the fact that science is apolitical. “Where does it get us?” he asked. The emphasis on inclusiveness and nonpartisanship he thinks combats the divisiveness that’s at the core of the current tension—and shifts the debate away from the exclusively political arena. “There are fights about science budgets, but there are larger issues about science education,” he said.

Bridget  Kohlnhofer, a grad student at UCSD, flat out said, “I’m not doing it for political reasons.” Her charmingly straightforward, unquestionably nonpartisan sign could have been waved at a march for science under, say, a Bernie Sanders administration:

Jon Cohen

A few of the nonscientists making posters were unabashed dump Trumpers who saw no reason to downplay their disgust. “We should take away all of Trump’s drugs—including his hair medication,” said Shay Miller, who is currently unemployed. “Who doesn’t like science?”

Genie Phillips, who has graying hair highlighted by a hank of pink, was bluntest of all. “The march is all about rejection of Trump and his administration,” said Phillips, who said she’s been an activist her entire adult life. “Some people say we shouldn’t have so many marches. Have as many as you want!”

Jon Cohen

Yet Phillips quickly recognized when she came to this poster-making event that people had come out for a variety of reasons. “I wanted to put #resist on my poster,” she said, referring to a popular anti-Trump meme. But when she looked at other people’s signs, she went with the decidedly more poetic: “Always question, always wonder.”