On Trump and Science: Preparing for the Unknown

November 30, 2016 | 3:41 pm
Photo: The White House
Gretchen Goldman
Former Contributor

I’m a little anxious. And I imagine you are too. Among other things, I’m worried about how President-elect Trump will treat science. We don’t know yet, for example, what he might do at science-based federal agencies. Will he cut public science funding? Will his administration interfere with science-based rulemaking? There have been some concerning developments on these fronts.

But we shouldn’t feel afraid of this uncertainty. If Trump does choose to misuse science, this time the scientific community is ready.

Respect for science?

Like you, I’ve been watching the headlines with anticipation and concern. We’ve already seen some moves from the president-elect that raised eyebrows for those of us who care about science and how it’s used in government decision-making.

  • Last week, a senior advisor for the incoming administration indicated that it would scrap NASA’s climate-related work, despite such work being written into the very first line of the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 that created NASA, and despite the vital role it plays today in scientific advancement, our national security, and the American economy.
  • Some of the people whose names have been floated for high-level positions in the administration have a history of misusing science, spreading misinformation, and harassing scientists. Noted climate denier Myron Ebell—who played a direct role in manipulating a government climate science report under the George W. Bush administration—has been tapped to lead the EPA transition. David Schnare, an EPA transition team member, has made a career of taking money from the coal industry to harass climate scientists by drowning them in open records requests. On the shortlist for energy secretary is oil magnate Harold Hamm, who pressured the University of Oklahoma to fire researchers who suggested a link between fracking and earthquakes, and then sued someone over a Facebook post that criticized his actions. Former US Senator Tom Coburn is rumored to be a candidate for head of the White House Office of Management and Budget–a powerful position for someone who repeatedly targeted and ridiculed individual scientists who received grants from the National Science Foundation that the Senator thought were “wasteful”.
  • President-elect Trump has said for every new regulation he’d remove two—as if regulations aren’t safeguards issued specifically to protect public health and safety. Agencies use science and other evidence to determine when new safeguards are needed. As Union of Concerned Scientists President Ken Kimmell has said, Trump’s proposal “shows a lack of understanding of how regulations are issued.”

These moves certainly raise questions about how the next president will treat science when he is in power. But I want to pause for a second to remind my fellow scientists of where we are and who we are.

Embracing uncertainty

In the scientific community we’re used to uncertainty. In fact, it’s one of our favorite things to discuss. Areas of uncertainty are where the interesting scientific problems are and where we spend most of our time. It makes us feel stupid, but we like that. We like that feeling of there being unknowns just waiting to be discovered through our work.

In the political space, uncertainty feels different. It feels outside of our control. And it certainly doesn’t always rely on facts. But it is nothing we can’t handle. We may feel powerless but I also feel ready. Let me explain.

A history of science abuse, and a history of fighting back

In the early 2000s, reports started trickling out revealing that the George W Bush Administration was misusing science. We heard from government scientists across federal agencies that their work was being suppressed, manipulated, or misused by political forces. And this was happening across federal agencies and across issue areas—from FDA drug approvals to education to endangered species to climate change. The scientific community was caught off guard. Never before had political interference in science been so pervasive and so widespread across the government.

But the scientific community fought back. The Union of Concerned Scientists organized 15,000 scientists to tell the administration that this disrespect of science would not stand. We surveyed thousands of federal scientists to quantify and document the state of science in federal decision-making. We developed detailed policy recommendations–many of which were ultimately enacted by the next administration. We got strong media coverage, pushed other prominent scientific voices to speak out on this issue, and raised the political price of misusing science for political purposes. The administration ultimately walked back on several political moves where science had been undermined.

When the next president came in, scientific integrity was high on the agenda.  In his inaugural speech, President Obama vowed to “restore science to its rightful place” and took several steps in his first hundred days to do so. There are now scientific integrity policies at more than 23 federal agencies. While they vary in quality, the policies are designed to guard against the kind of abuse we saw under the Bush administration. Many federal scientists now have more rights written into their agencies’ policies—rights to share their scientific work with the media and public, rights to review documents based on their science before their public release, and rights to share their work in the scientific community. Many policies also explicitly prohibit political appointees and public affairs staff from manipulating agency science, and some agencies have instated scientific integrity officials to oversee the new policies.

We have a long way to go in terms of ensuring these policies are implemented, but we are certainly in a better place than we were eight years ago. President Obama laid the groundwork for ensuring greater scientific integrity across the government.

We can—and will—do better this time

Under the Bush administration, the scientific community was too silent for too long, while political interference in science continued. Only when it was clear how pervasive and damaging the abuses were did many in the scientific community speak out. Eventually, the scientific community mobilized–but only after a lot of damage had been done. Misinformation had propagated from government sources, taxpayer-funded scientific work had been suppressed, and federal scientists were collectively demoralized. The actions of the administration had taken its toll, with countless adverse impacts on the health and safety of Americans. When we can’t use science to make policy decisions, we all lose.

This time is different because we know what’s at stake. We know the threat to our health and safety of Americans and to the US scientific enterprise.

We still don’t know how president-elect Trump will treat science and whether it will be similar to what we saw in the Bush era. But I’m certain that this time we’re in a better position to respond. The scientific community will be watching. We’re emboldened to continue our important scientific work and we know how to spot interference if it happens. We know how to organize. We are keenly aware of the proper role of science in our world and how to make sure it is protected. We can make peace with chaos and stand ready to defend science. Yes, there is a lot of uncertainty right now–but I’ve never been more prepared.