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5 Scientists On Their Worst Trump Fears

And how they plan to fight.

February 06, 2017
5 Scientists On Their Worst Trump Fears

The word “erosion” is typically used in a scientific context — glaciers and rocks erode, as do beaches and coastlines. But today we’re using it to talk about something else: Americans’ diminishing trust in science itself. As Penn State professor of glaciology Dr. Sridhar Anandakrishnan explained when we talked over the phone at the end of January, there’s been a “steady erosion of science as an important and central part of our society,” and the belief that science is “just one opinion” has now become less of a fringe view. That scientific skepticism has been made apparent to a terrifying degree by the United States’s new administration, which, within mere hours of Trump’s inauguration, scrubbed all mention of climate change from the E.P.A. and White House websites.

What happened next was even scarier: Trump ordered the E.P.A. and the National Park Service to freeze all contracts and barred federal agencies from publishing any kind of report to either Congress or the public — including on social media. In response, a number of rogue twitter accounts sprung up, as did a plan for a Scientists’ March on Washington. With all of this in mind, we thought it would be wise to talk to the people who know the most about both science and the censorship of science: actual scientists. Below, professionals from five distinct fields explain their fears for the future, and why they intend to stand up and fight.

Note: Everything these scientists say is their own opinion, not the opinions of their institute, organization, or anyone else.

1. Funding cuts could halt our climate observation capabilities.

Dr. Kim Cobb, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences and Georgia Power faculty scholar, Georgia Institute of Technology

There are many different scenarios that could play out in the next month to year. For example, Trump could launch targeted attacks to significantly curtail funding for areas that touch climate research directly or indirectly — that would include places like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (N.A.S.A.), the Department Of Education, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (N.O.A.A.), and the National Science Foundation (N.S.F.). Senior and tenured professors wouldn’t be hurt most by this — it would be early-career scientists who wouldn't have access to the funding to build careers in their research programs, and that risks a generational impact on the talent pool we rely on as a nation to help face the challenges of climate change. An entire segment of the workforce would be in jeopardy.

“Look, science has always been political. Especially climate science. That’s just the fact of the matter.”—Dr. Kim Cobb

Another potential nightmare is the crippling of the capabilities we have as a nation to observe the changes occurring on our planet. [Trump’s administration] could stop investment in large observational arrays and programs that monitor changes in temperature, rainfall, carbon dioxide levels, atmosphere, extreme events, etc. In many cases, these tools were designed explicitly to last many decades — which is, by definition, the timescale over which we need to observe climate change. Gaps in these data sets, even by just a couple of years, would have very long-standing implications.

Look, science has always been political. Especially climate science. That's just the fact of the matter. I think as scientists we’ve had false hope that the strength of our data and findings speak for themselves. We have a clear account of that failing miserably this year, so we have increased urgency to provide evidence that climate change is happening right now, all over the world. I think the American public will be somewhat surprised to see scientists taking to the street, rising up to defend their data from attack. But they shouldn't be surprised. The pursuit of facts is central to everything we do. When that’s attacked, minimized, obscured, or otherwise distorted, you're going to find an army of people willing to say, “This matters, and we're going to stand up and fight."


2. Trump’s administration could destroy the credibility of the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Sridhar Anandakrishnan, professor of glaciology, reflection seismology, and geophysics at Penn State

The United States has a very prestigious organization called the National Academy of Sciences. It was set up by Abraham Lincoln [in 1863] to give advice to the government on complicated scientific, technological, and medical issues that politicians don't understand. That was a great idea, and ever since then the National Academy has been the final word on science in the U.S. When the National Academy weighed in, people would nod up and down and say, "We really ought to start putting policy forward that follows the recommendations of the National Academy."This administration could say, "Well, that is one opinion, but we need more input from all sorts of people."

“Non-scientists are going to be caught between all sorts of voices shouting, and that’s so incredibly dangerous.”—Dr. Sridhar Anandakrishnan

The downgrading of things like National Academy reports will lead to a complete splintering of how decisions are made. There've always been Congressmen who love to ridicule particular studies, or pick out spending and claim it's wasteful, but by and large, these organizations have been well respected by the government. Historically, the public has trusted the government when it’s said, "We talked to the best scientists in the country, got advice from professional groups, input from industry, and input from the public, and here's what we think about 'X'." Be it on climate, the environment, nutrition, or medicine, I think that trust is going to break down over the next four years. Non-scientists are going to be caught between all sorts of voices shouting, and that's so incredibly dangerous.

We have to watch for when they reach down into the N.S.F. and say, "No, you cannot study this, you have to study that instead." Because it’s a government organization, they have to do what the politicians tell them to, and at that point, the credibility of the N.S.F. is completely shot. It can be destroyed very, very quickly. That's not something you win back in five or ten years. But a lot of scientists, me included, talk to community groups — from local farms to local environmental groups — and that's always going to continue. It really doesn't matter what happens at the national stage, we as scientists have to continue to reach out to our local friends, neighbors, colleagues, and organizations.

3. Cuts to E.P.A. funding could drive scientists away from the United States.

Gail Schwieterman, PhD student at Virginia Institute of Marine Science

A lot of people [at Virginia Institute] are on E.P.A. grants, so it was scary when [the hiring freeze] decision came down. Not only does grant money fund research, pay for equipment, sampling, and sample processing, it also pays for students’ tuition and salaries, salaries for faculty members, techs, and lab managers, and it supports the administrative stuff — maintaining campus buildings, etc. When Canada had an anti-science administration — which wasn’t even as extreme as what we have now — a lot of top faculty and students left the country for Germany and Australia, where they could actually get jobs and work without risking persecution. That totally drained Canada's scientific and academic community. I think the same thing is going to happen here.

This is what we've all built our careers on. Being told what we’ve dedicated our lives to is a lie is very demoralizing and frustrating. A scientist's job is to inform policy in an unbiased way. It's really important that lawmakers have access to that information when they're making decisions. Some think that, by marching on Washington, we'll risk furthering the image of being just another lobbying group. Personally, I think it's going to provide an opportunity to interact with the media, which scientists need to be more proactive about. It’s necessary to be talking to your neighbors, Congress — anyone you can get to listen — and learn how to effectively communicate your science.

Part of me is like, Nothing matters anyway at this point because we're living basically in a totalitarian state, but I'm still hopeful that non-scientists are writing their representatives and calling their Senators and saying, "Hey, this matters, and you need to support evidence-based policy." No matter what scientists do, we’ll never convince Trump that climate change is real. But we can try to convince enough people in the voter base that climate change will have super drastic human health impacts.

4. The immigration ban is already causing America’s scientific community to suffer.

Lucky Tran, science communicator at Columbia University with a PhD in molecular biology from University of Cambridge

I was born in a refugee camp in Malaysia, and the only reason that I’m a scientist today is thanks to good, human-centric refugee policies. Growing up in Australia, our family benefited from a strong community that welcomed refugees. My teachers were extremely supportive, and with their guidance, I won a scholarship to the University of Cambridge. I can’t believe today’s immigrants and refugees are being denied the chance that I got, and are being sent back into life threatening situations. The scientific community will suffer greatly because many of our best scientists, who have worked here for years, are now unable to continue their research. And we may lose a whole generation of future scientists who could make the next big breakthrough in cancer or renewable energy. Einstein was a refugee!

This is a critical moment that will determine the relationship between science and society for years to come. Scientists are fired up right now.The scientific community could either turn inward to the ivory tower, eschew politics, and concentrate on preserving itself. Or it could step up to the plate — if scientists are brave enough to take politics and ideology head-on, that movement will happen, and it will be powerful. In the era of “alternative facts,” simply explaining all the great things science does isn’t enough. Scientists need to call out politicians who, by interfering with our ability to do and communicate science, are deceitfully working against the public’s best interests for their own benefit.


“Scientists are not used to having to defend our own existence on a daily basis, but at this point we have no choice.”—Dr. Akiko Iwasaki
5. Trump’s delusions about vaccines may cause infectious diseases to run rampant.

Dr. Akiko Iwasaki, professor of immunobiology at Yale University

In the past, Trump has spoken about vaccines causing autism, and other health-related things that are just not true. Whatever’s going to happen against vaccination will have a detrimental consequence on the health of the country. Vaccines given in childhood are hugely protective against many lethal diseases. If we don't enforce this at the level of government, I'm afraid infectious diseases that are currently controlled will become rampant.

If N.I.H. or N.S.F. fundings are cut, the U.S. will no longer be the leader of science. My colleagues and I often discuss what we should do, if this were to happen. Even a transient lack of funding will have a long-lasting impact. There's a lot of money in other parts of the world — China, Singapore, Germany — where they are putting in more funding for science than we can expect here. There's so much money in China that many scientists of Chinese origin are being recruited; my Chinese colleagues left for China [before Trump was elected]. I suspect that because of the Trump administration and policy, there will be more [scientists] moving away from the country in the future. And if we enforce that trend, it would take forever to recover. Once you lose leadership, it's very difficult to become a leader again. It's a top-down effect: let's say scientists lose their jobs, then they cannot train the next generation of scientists, and so on and so forth. So it's not just a problem of the next four years, but a problem of decades to come.

[Scientists are] not used to having to defend our own existence on a daily basis, but at this point we have no choice. Under Obama's administration, we had to worry about which grant proposal to submit, or which area to focus on. But now, it's like, Do we even get to do science anymore?

Marches For Science are happening all over the world on Earth Day, April 22. Find out more info here.
5 Scientists On Their Worst Trump Fears