Michael Halpern (@halpsci) is deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
More than 2300 scientists—including 22 Nobel laureates—this week issued an open letter, outlining how they want the Trump administration and 115th Congress to make use of scientific evidence and expert advice. It remains open for signatures here.
The letter calls on the president-elect to appoint cabinet members with a track record of supporting science and promoting diversity; to protect the integrity and independence of government researchers; and to provide sufficient funding for scientific research and data collection.
These are far from abstract concerns. Congress has signalled its intent to pass legislation that cuts science out of existing public health and environmental laws. Without an independent Food and Drug Administration, we become more vulnerable to unsafe medical devices. When Environmental Protection Agency scientists are sidelined, people are more likely to be exposed to unsafe water. With inadequate data collection, we will be less able to deal with floods and forest fires.
Donald Trump, meanwhile, is surrounding himself with people who have attacked scientists in the past, and are openly hostile to the agencies they are being tapped to lead. Bob Walker, leading the NASA transition, wants to rid the agency of climate research, despite its vitality to national security and the economy. Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, who put the lives of foetal tissue researchers in danger by publishing their names and addresses, is on the Trump transition team.
Kathleen White, in line for EPA administrator, is a climate change denier who dismissed scientific advisors as “mandarins brandishing their scientific credentials.” As an Oklahoma Senator, Tom Coburn attacked individual National Science Foundation grantees and attempted to wipe out funding for political science research. He is under consideration to run the White House Office of Management and Budget, an obscure office that regularly hosts industry lobbyists intent on preventing agencies from developing science-based regulations.
The scientists’ letter is not without precedent. In 2004, a bipartisan group of experts penned a letter expressing outrage about the Bush administration’s pervasive political interference in science. That letter received widespread attention in the press and galvanized scientists to expose and push back on censorship and manipulation of science.
In 2008, a small group of scientists called on the next president to “create conditions conducive to a thriving scientific enterprise.” Signatories included John Holdren, who became President Obama’s science adviser and subsequently pushed federal agencies to develop scientific integrity policies to protect scientists from political interference in their work.
But never before has the scientific community been this organised to scrutinise the new administration and Congress. For example, last week, twenty-nine scientific organisations urged the president-elect to appoint a senior science advisor early in his term.
Alarmed by growing sexism and racism, a group of women in science wrote a statement aimed at creating “an inclusive scientific community dedicated to training a more diverse group of future leaders in science.” They hoped for 500 signatories; the statement now has more than ten thousand on six continents.
Participation, both inside and outside of government, is key. There is no more important time to be a government scientist, even if hostile leaders are appointed and confirmed. Government scientists can keep agencies strong by doing good research and reporting interference and malpractice. The Union of Concerned Scientists is well-versed at investigating and exposing such activities, and is setting up secure methods for agency employees to anonymously share any evidence of such activity.
If and when the Trump administration politicizes science (and it seems inevitable that it will), scientists and journalists need to do a better job of connecting the impacts of those actions to people’s everyday lives. Scientists are ready to push back and bring the American people with them.
“Americans recognise that science is critical to improving our quality of life,” said physicist Lewis Branscomb, who worked as chief scientist at IBM and has advised four presidential administrations. “And when science is ignored or politically corrupted, it’s the American people who suffer.”
We cannot afford to allow attacks on scientists, draconian budget cuts, or pervasive conflicts of interest to become routine. The battle to defend science has already started, and it does not end on Inauguration Day. We need the summon the stamina to stay engaged throughout 2017 and beyond to ensure that those who choose to attack or undermine science are held to account.