in the war on science
Revenge of the Nerds
Earlier this month, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a damning report: Sidelining Science Since Day One—How the Trump Administration Has Harmed Public Health and Safety in Its First Six Months.
The value of science to policy making has been recognized in the United States at least since 1863, when President Lincoln, at the height of the Civil War, signed into law a bill establishing the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), charging it with the task of “providing independent, objective advice to the nation in matters relating to science and technology.”
A century later, during the Vietnam War, appalled at the misuse of science by policy-makers, scientists and students of MIT founded the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Since then the UCS has engaged tirelessly in advocacy for science-based public policy and for the de-politicization of science. The UCS, which remains independent, is highly regarded at home and abroad for its integrity and effectiveness.
When the UCS speaks, informed citizens should listen. Here are two excerpts from the executive summary of Sidelining Science:
A clear pattern has emerged over the first six months of the Trump presidency: multiple actions by his administration are eroding the ability of science, facts, and evidence to inform policy decisions, leaving us more vulnerable to threats to public health and the environment.
The Trump administration is attempting to delegitimize science, it is giving industries more ability to influence how and what science is used in policymaking, and it is creating a hostile environment for federal agency scientists who serve the public.
The USC report acknowledges that all modern presidents have attempted to politicize science “to some extent.” And when doing so, they have met stiff resistance from the UCS. But no former administration has taken science thrashing, trashing, and bashing to the extreme levels flaunted by the Trump administration. According to the UCS report, in six short months Team Trump has:
- Sidelined independent science advice;
- Appointed conflicted individuals to scientific leadership positions;
- Left key science positions vacant;
- Revoked science-based safeguards;
- Misrepresented climate science and rolled back climate-change safeguards;
- Weakened science-based pollution standards without scientific justification;
- Undermined protections from hazards at work and home;
- Altered scientific content on federal websites;
- Reduced public access to data;
- Restricted communication among scientists; and
- Created a hostile environment for scientific staff.
The report cites amply and/or provides examples to support each claim. Space limitations permit addressing only the most egregious violations, but the full report is wonderfully presented and deserves to be read in entirety.
Regarding appointments, the Trump Administration appears to have deliberately selected individuals whose primary function is to undermine the very agencies they are supposed to shepherd. In particular, Trump has placed Rick Perry at the helm of the Department of Energy (DOE) and Scott Pruitt in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). While running unsuccessfully for president, Perry called for the abolition of the DOE (a comment he now says he regrets). Pruitt (no relation I hope), like Trump, is a climate-change denier, whose recent actions to reopen climate “debate” seem a thinly-veiled pretext for overturning the EPA’s 2009 finding that increased atmospheric carbon dioxide is harmful to public health. Moreover, Pruitt has allowed the reintroduction of the banned pesticide chlorpyrifos, despite its harmful effects on brain development in children. The decision, without scientific justification, was made shortly following Pruitt’s meeting with the CEO of Dow Chemical, a manufacturer of chlorpyrifos. Dow, the report notes, contributed one million dollars to Trump’s inauguration.
Regarding climate science, the world was shocked but little surprised when Trump recently withdrew the US from the global family of 195 nations committed to the Paris Climate Accord. Not only does Trump deny the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change and the vast consensus of climate scientists, on the campaign trail he maintained the position that climate change is a “hoax” perpetrated by the Chinese. The Chinese, on the other hand, are taking climate change quite seriously. In 2011 China boasted seven of the world’s top ten manufacturers of solar panels and by 2013 controlled 60 percent of solar market share. Moreover, the Chinese are now manufacturing wind turbines like gangbusters. So much for “America first.”
Regarding the hostility now faced by government scientists, on July 19, Joel Clement, former director of the Department of Policy Analysis of the Interior Department, turned whistleblower. Why? Clement is a scientist who has studied the dangers posed by climate change to Native communities in coastal Alaska, and he’s regularly spoken out on behalf of those threatened communities. In retaliation, Trump Administration officials involuntarily reassigned Clement and fifty other outspoken Interior Department officials. Clement’s new role: collecting royalty checks from fossil-fuel companies. These developments at the Department of the Interior follow a host of Administration-imposed gag orders at the Department of State, the Food and Drug Administration, and the EPA, among other agencies.
On pages eight and nine, Sidelining Science presents a timeline of forty-four Trump Administration “attacks on science” within its first six months, a frequency of nearly two per week. The report concludes: “When the federal government does not uphold principles of scientific integrity, our nation’s ability to respond effectively to complex challenges to public health, the environment, and national security is compromised.”
As an applied mathematician and scientist, I can attest that most scientists are introverts who like nothing better than to be left alone in their laboratories or at their computers to do what they love best: ferreting out the secrets of nature.
However, extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. “The Trump administration is waging a war on science and on science input in the policymaking process, endangering the nation’s health, economy, environment, and leadership in the world.” The scientific community is pushing back: “standing up for science, calling out ‘alternative facts,’ articulating the importance of science-based policymaking, and marching in the streets.”
On April 22, 2017, 1.3 million scientists marched worldwide to “defend the role of science in policy and society.” It takes a lot to rile scientists, but look out if you do. Scientists are armed with the facts, and in the end, the facts ALWAYS win.
- Editor's Note: This story also appeared at The Huffington Post.
Image: March for Science, Washington, DC by Becker1999 (Paul and Cathy) – (flickr, CC).
The author's book Reason and Wonder: A Copernican Revolution in Science and Spirit (Praeger, 2012) further explores the interface between science, mythology, spirituality, and meaning. According to Ursula King of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Bristol, Dave Pruett's Reason and Wonder (Praeger, 2012) "opens up [an expansive worldview] of true audacity and grandeur that will change your thinking forever."