Science welcomes skepticism. It also welcomes dissent and criticism. Before being published, new scientific ideas go through layers of review by people who are experts in the field. Old ideas aren’t safe either. Researchers can build their careers on challenging commonly held assumptions. But when convincing, rigorous evidence and theory accumulates, it should be considered seriously. Scientific knowledge can help people understand their health, their communities, and the world around them. It can help people in authority make decisions that affect us all.
Scientific progress is also subject to changing political tides. In the United States, federal agencies carry out and fund much of the basic and applied scientific research for which our institutions and universities are famous. When a new administration enters the White House with plans to disrupt scientific advancement, there are unfortunately many ways they can do so.
Just a few years ago, under the administration of Stephen Harper, the Canadian federal government slashed research funding, shut down research libraries liquidating valuable journals that pre-date the Internet era, censored researchers from sharing their findings, and put thousands of government scientists out of work. In the U.S., we saw similar patterns under the administration of George W. Bush.
As we’ve already seen in the first weeks of the new administration, President Trump is pursuing policies that undermine fundamental values and institutions and threaten marginalized segments of American society. Scientists, though not usually socially marginalized, are also at risk. We need to stand up against government corruption, Islamophobia, mass deportations, injustice in the justice system, and many other issues we face under the new administration. But as the Trump era dawns, we also need to be ready to stand up for science.
Trump’s plans for science remain largely unclear, but based on his public statements and political appointees, there is much to be worried about. The consensus of the scientific community is that climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our time, and inaction will cause severe harm to our safety, economy, and health. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the changing climate is expected to impact human health in many ways: more deaths from heat-related illness, increased transmission of vector-borne and infectious diseases, increased political instability, decreased access to food and clean water, and more frequent and severe natural disasters. Trump, however, called climate change a Chinese hoax, and just hours after the inauguration the White House website’s pages on climate change were taken down. He also promotes a return to a more coal-based economy, despite market shifts away from coal and the costs of burning coal to the environment and human health.
Trump’s pick for Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, has been critical of efforts by President Obama and the EPA to address climate change. Perhaps more worrisome, they are also challenging the agency’s basic functions, designed to protect the health and integrity of American communities. The new leadership of the EPA “asked that all contract and grant awards be temporarily suspended, effective immediately,” and also barred the agency from engaging in public outreach. This should worry every American who wants access to clean air, clean food, and clean water.
We won’t know Trump’s position on research funding until he releases his budget, but his overall agenda of widespread budget cuts indicates that research funding is at risk. We know that there will at least be continuity of leadership in key scientific agencies. France Córdova will stay on as director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), and Francis Collins will stay in his role as director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The position of science in the White House, however, will be changing. For his science advisor, Trump is considering David Gelernter, a Yale computer science professor and critic of “liberal” academia, and William Happer, a Princeton physics professor-emeritus and climate skeptic. Either pick may end up providing counsel that contradicts views of the the scientific community at large. We need to be ready to speak up and give voice to scientific assessments that may be ignored by the science advisors closest to the president.
In terms of evidence-based decision-making in the Trump administration, there is some reason for hope. In May 2015, as Scott County, Indiana, faced an HIV outbreak related to illicit drug use, then-governor Mike Pence wavered for weeks before issuing an executive order permitting a needle-exchange program, which curbed the outbreak. His decision came a day after meeting with experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who urged him to implement the needle-exchange program. In light of scientific evidence and in the face of an urgent crisis, Pence made a decision against his personal moral beliefs that put an end to the immediate problem. When the next crisis comes, hopefully an objective, evidence-based approach to decision-making will prevail, but we shouldn’t expect this to happen on its own. The scientific community and those who support it need to play an active role at all levels
We need to speak out against targeted immigration bans that, in addition to being discriminatory, restrict the free flow of international students and scholars. We need to foster a scientifically literate public through education and address systemic and cultural barriers to the diversification of the scientific community. We need to encourage our Congressional representatives to continue funding scientific research, if not expand it. Scientists in and out of government need to be able to openly communicate their findings to the public, and if the Trump administration tries to disrupt the fundamental research missions of agencies such as the EPA, CDC, and NIH, we need to pay attention and speak out.
We also need science-literate representatives (or better yet, scientists) in Congress. There is also some reason for hope here. Just last month, Michael Eisen, a UC Berkeley geneticist, announced he would seek election to the US Senate in 2018. Advocacy groups such as 314Action are encouraging more scientists to run for office.
The promotion of science is part of the mission of our federal government. We as citizens need to remain vigilant when that mission is threatened. The process of scientific advancement, though not perfect, is critical. It needs to be free from political disruption, and we need to be ready to defend it.