Guest Commentary: Marching in support of science

Guest Commentary: Marching in support of science


Between the 19th Annual Ebertfest and the 9th Illinois Marathon on Saturday, April 22, you may have missed Champaign-Urbana's first March for Science. The March for Science was a nationwide event organized by scientists to showcase the value of science in everyone's life and support evidence-based policymaking and robust funding for research.

Although the main march took place on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., "satellite" marches occurred on the same day in more than 600 communities around the world. C-U's March, at the Orpheum Children's Science Museum, was organized by three hometown scientists — UIUC molecular biology graduate Elizabeth Sotiropoulos and UIUC doctoral candidates in ecology Tara Stewart and Jennifer Jones.

The C-U march itself comprised a rally with two speeches, a march around the block, and a return to the Orpheum for five more speeches. The speakers, all members of the CU community, represented a cross-section of the scientific enterprise, including students, educators, researchers, and administrators and all celebrated science in its many manifestations. Attendance at the march, estimated at 5,000, was far smaller than the 40,000 at the Chicago march, but, in terms of percentages of the populations of the two metropolitan areas, C-U outdid Chicago by fivefold.

Celebrating science comes naturally to C-U, a community that has provided a welcoming home for science for 150 years. I'm an entomologist at UIUC, but I'm hardly the first in town. Entomology has been taught here since 1868, when the Illinois Industrial University, as it was known then, hired Thomas J. Burrill to teach botany and entomology. UIUC's Burrill Hall is named in his honor; among other achievements, Burrill identified a bacterium associated with fire blight, a disease of fruit trees, and was first to associate bacteria with disease in plants. The idea, then controversial, proved to be correct and revolutionized the way that plant diseases, which had been causing staggering disruptions in the world's food supply, are managed.

Research with direct applications, such as Burrill's fire blight studies, is easy for the public to support. Since its earliest days, UI has also fostered basic research, the value of which is most frequently questioned (and all too often ridiculed by politicians). Entomology can be an easy target in this regard. Studying insects for their own sake may seem esoteric at times but basic research has often been the foundation of insights that help solve the world's least tractable problems.

Local examples abound. In 2001, for example, UI entomologists Jim Whitfield and Sydney Cameron described a new species of parasitic wasp that attacks a tiny caterpillar infesting nests of South American bumblebees. On its own, such a discovery may sound inconsequential, but the work is important in a larger context. The wasp belongs to a family that includes the most important biological control agents of stem-boring caterpillars of sugarcane, rice, and other cereal crops. The methods Jim developed to classify these wasps are used around the world to insure that the right wasp species is deployed to control stemborer outbreaks. The tiny caterpillar is one of many enemies of bumblebees, and Sydney is a world authority on bumblebees and their parasites and pathogens. Sydney and her collaborators recently conducted the first nationwide assessment of bumblebee health and documented unequivocally the declining abundance of the rusty-patched bumblebee, officially listed as endangered just two months ago.

There's more — a project spearheaded by another UI professor, Gene Robinson, was aimed at sequencing and comparing genomes of 10 bee species to understand how social living evolved but it also revealed that bumblebees may be genetically vulnerable to pathogens. This project amplified the honeybee genome project, which provided timely insights into Colony Collapse Disorder as well as new strategies to allow honeybees to keep providing pollination services (worth $19 billion annually) to U.S. agriculture. And C-U citizens are helping bees through UI's Beespotter, the web-based citizen-science project where nonscientists can upload georeferenced photographs of bumblebees and honeybees to help scientists monitor the status of these essential pollinators.

C-U has an impact globally that far exceeds its size and location because it has long been a home for scientific research, teaching and service of the highest quality. The March for Science in C-U and elsewhere was not about scientists as a special interest group — it was a march in support of science as an economic engine for the state and the nation, as a force for fairness and justice, and as a defining dimension of our community's character. Thank you, C-U, for marching!

May Berenbaum is head of the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.