Local science community rallies around opposition to Trump, plans march

By Patrick M. O'Connell, Chicago Tribune

In Illinois coffee shops and theaters, scientists and science fans gather to plan a march. At government offices they fret about the appointment of Cabinet leaders who hold skeptical views on climate change. And in labs they worry about the freeze on their research projects.

The regional science community has felt apprehension since the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency — concerns that further crystallized Thursday with the release of the administration’s budget proposal. Trump seeks deep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency and other areas of federal government that rely on scientific research.

Now, motivated by the tenor of the Trump era, the science community is trying to educate the public about how science affects their lives and is planning a Chicago pro-science march to coincide with the national March for Science on Earth Day.

“Our concern in the current climate is that we will have scientists who are silenced or aren’t able to continue to do the work they’re doing,” said Nicole Cantello, who represents EPA employees as chief steward of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704.

Research for many studies, including those done in collaboration with nongovernmental groups, has been put on hold because the White House wants to review the EPA’s scientific research to make sure it aligns with the administration’s views and priorities, Cantello said.

“What will become of the studies that they’re doing and the work they’re doing?” Cantello said.

Last week, the leaders of several Illinois environmental groups held a news conference to sound the alarm about possible drastic cuts to Great Lakes restoration programs. Representatives from the Sierra Club Illinois, Alliance for the Great Lakes and others said the kinds of cuts being discussed are troubling and will have harmful consequences to the region.

“The overall approach is that we think that the Trump administration and what they’re promoting out of Washington is really out of step with what the American people want,” said Kady McFadden, deputy director of Sierra Club Illinois.

Since Trump took office, the regional branch of the Sierra Club has seen an increase in membership, donations and inquiries about how to make a difference, McFadden said. While targeting issues of national scope, such as the potential budget cuts to Great Lakes programs, the group is trying to focus on state and regional issues that may have local allies.

“We’re trying not to spend the next four years in defensive mode,” McFadden said.

Others in the science community in Illinois have been putting their energy into a movement for a science march in Chicago. The organizers want to make sure that scientific thought, research, curiosity and exploration are recognized and appreciated.

The March for Science Chicago is scheduled for April 22. Within days of its creation, the group’s Facebook page had thousands of followers and encouraging comments, most voicing a desire to attend. Others offered organizational expertise and other forms of support. The event page now has more than 11,000 people expressing interest.

“The science community has woken up and realized we have to tell people about what we do so they understand it,” said Monica Metzler, one of the event organizers.

Metzler, a self-described “policy wonk” attorney who is the executive director of the Illinois Science Council, said much of the impetus for the march came as a response to the Trump administration’s moves with the EPA.

“I’ve been wonderfully encouraged by all of the people who say they care about science,” Metzler said. “And I hope that can continue and it’s not just viewed as a one-off, one-day event they do to get outside on a Saturday. I hope that people really recognize the importance of science, what it is and what scientific research brings to our community.”

The organizers said interest in the march has been helped by Chicago’s deep and varied scientific community. Metzler said northern Illinois has an active, enthusiastic science base — from universities to international corporations to small businesses and to people who simply enjoy exploring science subjects as a hobby.

Andrea Poet, director of programs and public relations at the Chicago Council on Science and Technology, said her organization believes publicly funded science is a pillar of democracy. Poet said her group has seen the local science community trying to be more vocal in recent weeks.

“It’s pushed it to the point where scientists don’t necessarily want to be political about what they’re doing, but they feel the need to be a little more public and … more of an advocate for science and facts and reason, and getting those into the public conversation,” Poet said. “They feel a need to stand up for what they do.”

Organizers are striving to make the march nonpartisan and apolitical. While they will not be able to control the sentiments of participants, the organizers are choosing to focus on touting the importance of scientific thought and research and its value to the city and community.

“People are concerned on both sides of the aisle for various reasons, and we want to make sure all of those voices are heard,” said event organizer Adam Arcus, a 31-year-old former engineer who works as a consultant.

Arcus, who volunteered at the Museum of Science and Industry as a kid, was immediately struck by how many people were passionate about creating the march. Social media lit up with testimonials from people about how science affects their personal and professional lives.

“They know it matters,” Arcus said.

Planning the march essentially has become a second job for Arcus, Metzler and Monica Zabinski, another organizer, as they steer the planning committees, work with city officials, drum up donations and arrange speakers.

“It’s been overwhelming,” Metzler said, “in a positive way.”

They were buoyed by the success of the Women’s March in Chicago in January, when hundreds of thousands of people rallied in Grant Park, a throng so large the formal march portion of the event was unable to be held.

“We hope that’s our problem,” Arcus said.


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