There Is No Planet B: Portland’s March for Science
“What do we want? Fact based science! When do we want it? After peer review!”
This has been quite the year for political marches. This Earth Day’s March for Science was far from the largest, but certainly had a good turnout. As a geology major, I felt a vested interest in the march, and attended it with my little brother, a physics major.
The Portland March for Science was one of over 600 around the world, including one that took place underwater with scuba gear through a coral reef at Wake Island in the South Pacific. The march started out intended to represent a protest against Donald Trump’s planned cuts to various scientific agencies, as well as the administration’s less than favorable views on climate change research and science in general. It quickly adopted as its central tenet the idea that science is, and should be, nonpartisan. The March for Science movement is the single largest protest by scientists and their supporters in history.
Initial news estimates of the size of the march in Portland were around a thousand people, but these were taken from the size of the crowd gathered before the march to listen to speeches at the rally. As the march started, however, it rapidly swelled in size, and the estimates put the numbers in at over ten thousand people. It was much smaller than the Women’s March in January (and rightfully so, considering that there are a lot more women on the planet than scientists), but still a respectable-sized crowd.
While most of the protests this Earth Day got rained on around the country, Portland was, ironically enough, one of the few to have nice weather. A bit of morning rain cleared up well before the actual marching started, and the protesters had little worse than the occasional gust of wind to deal with.
The protest itself felt different than others I have participated in. It possessed an almost circus-like feel much of the time. There were stilt walkers, human-carried foam salmon skeleton floats, jugglers with posters modeling the physics of juggling, and even a brass band. Booths were located at Tom McCall Waterfront Park where scientists had set up in order to tell the public about the research they do. The volunteers at the march were even apparently referring to the event as a “Science Fair”. (A yearly “Science Fair” would be an absolutely fantastic way for scientists to communicate with the public about science, and I would love to see it happen.)
The vast majority of the people at the event were upbeat and cheerful, contributing to the festival-like mood. The march went off absolutely without a hitch- there were no incidents, no anarchists causing trouble, or any confusion along the route. (There were a few militant vegans angrily handing out pamphlets and yelling, but I wasn’t entirely sure that they wouldn’t have been there even without the march.)
Costumes were visible left and right, and there were quite a few lab coats and other scientific paraphernalia to be seen. There were plenty of righteously indignant slogans on the signs being carried, of which “There Is No Planet B” was the most popular. There were nearly as many humorous ones, however. They included Star Wars and Star Trek references (“Spock for President!), “Make America Smart Again”, and more cheesy science and math jokes than you could shake a stick at. The chants often tended towards the silly, as well. The most popular was “What do we want? Fact based science! When do we want it? After peer review!”
Despite the cheerful and often slightly silly mood, there was also a powerful sense of determination in the crowd. With a few prominent exceptions, most scientists aren’t public figures, they’re just too busy and wrapped up their work. They are intensely passionate about their research, however, and many of them currently feel under threat. They flooded out of the woodwork in droves.
Thousands of science students and passionate non-scientists helped fill out the ranks, and were, by and large, nearly as passionate about the subjects as the scientists themselves. The on-stage speakers at the rally before the march were as determined as you would expect, although there was a little more discussion of data in place of some of the fiery rhetoric you’d usually see from rally speakers at a protest.
During the march itself, I witnessed countless people starting up serious conversations. Scientists talking about their research, or about the specifics of the climate change threat. Multiple documentary makers interviewing protesters and talking about their work. Worries that observers might take this as a partisan liberal action rather than the nonpartisan movement that scientists wanted it to be. Conversations about specific policy proposals being offered by both the administration and various scientific groups. This was a very focused protest. Everyone knew exactly why they were there and exactly what needed to be done: