Naperville Sun: Standing up for science

Friday, April 21, 2017

Scientists, students, educators and activists from Naperville and the Fox Valley will take to the streets of Chicago this weekend as part of the March for Science.

Billed as one of the largest global gatherings to promote science ever held, nonpartisan March for Science events were scheduled this year for Earth Day, April 22, as a means of validating the importance of scientific discovery.

Besides Chicago, marches are planned throughout Illinois, including Carbondale, Charleston, Champaign, Normal, Palatine, Peoria, Rockford and Springfield.

Naperville resident Meg Dickson, a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, will be volunteering at the Chicago event. Organizers are expecting about 40,000 people to participate, she said.

“There is a general misunderstanding of how science works,” said Dickson, who is studying molecular, cellular and developmental biology.

Like many scientists, Dickson said she is dismayed by the policies coming from President Donald Trump and his administration, who have denied the existence of climate change and frozen funding earmarked for research.

The march is an effort to generate better understanding, she said.

In Chicago, the event begins with a rally at 10 a.m. at the corner of South Columbus Drive at East Jackson Drive. From there, participants will march south to the Chicago museum campus, where the March for Science Expo is to be held from noon to 3 p.m.

Dickson said another goal of the march is to celebrate the diversity of the science community, no matter the field of study or a scientist’s political leaning.

“The image of the scientist is the old white dude with a beard,” which is no longer the case, she said.

Dickson said the number of women in laboratories in her field of biology has grown over the years, though the number remains below 50 percent.

“I’d like to think we’ve gained quite a bit, but we have a long way to go,” she said.

Aurora high school sophomore Jo Balmuri said she is marching in Chicago to raise awareness that climate change is a real and important issue to young people. She’s encouraging other science- and civic-minded students from her school to attend as well.

“I personally think this president’s climate policy is very troubling,” said Balmuri , a student at Metea Valley High School in Aurora.

Like most teenagers, she said, she has grown up being taught what is happening to the polar ice caps and the causes of the melt.

“Climate change is no longer disputed. If anything we debate its severity,” said Balmuri , who added she doesn’t understand why people in Trump’s Cabinet deny it.

Climate change needs a long-term solution and her generation might have to be the one to push for it, she said.

“I think we’re the most technologically competent generation. It is our obligation,” she said.

Boarding the Amtrak for Chicago Saturday will be at least 10 members of the League of Women Voters Naperville.

“(Our group) participated in the Women’s March; we continue in that spirit with the March for Science,” said Linda Heller, the league’s action and advocacy coordinator for the march.

The league’s positions nationally and the state level align with the March for Science, such as promoting protection and management of natural resources; preserving the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of the ecosystem, air quality, energy, land use and water resources; and waste management.

An increased awareness of the role science plays in our lives doesn’t hurt, said the retired art teacher and advocate of STEAM — science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics.

“The modern world would not be so modern without science. Science affects us all,” Heller said.

Naperville’s Bill Foster is headed to Washington, D.C., to march there with his science comrades.

“I am attending as a scientist rather than a Democratic member of Congress,” said Foster, who is the only physicist in the U.S. House.

A number of longtime friends from Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia and Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont are so concerned about how science and the scientific method is viewed by U.S. leaders that they’ve begun reaching out to their congressmen and senators.

The initial budget proposal from the president calls for deep cuts in research funding, which will hit Fermilab, Argonne and the National Institutes of Health, which are finding cures for cancer.

“One of the big concerns is the increasing disrespect for the scientific method and for policies that aren’t based on facts and evidence,” Foster said.

“Those in science perform research, have it reviewed by their peers, publish the results and believe the answer should be obvious. That no longer is the case,” he said.

Foster said either ignoring or rejecting facts is not the way to make decisions facing this nation. Having more people in Congress with a scientific background or understanding of science can be very helpful.

“There are times when it’s indispensable,” he said.

For example, when Congress was weighing the Iran nuclear deal, the material included “pages and pages” of technical descriptions, he said.

“Republicans and Democrats came to me asking, ‘Hey Bill, what does this mean?'”

When Foster entered Congress, he was one of three physicists. The others were Vern Ehlers, a Republican from Michigan, and Rush Holt, a Democrat from New Jersey who now heads up the American Association for the Advancement of Science and is active in organizing the March for Science in Washington, D.C.

“I have to admit that at this point (as) the only PhD physical scientist (in Congress), I sometimes feel a bit lonely,” Foster said.

Paid for by Bill Foster for Congress