Scientists discuss challenges that may arise under Trump administration
boston — A group of scientists and their supporters are set to march Sunday in Boston’s Copley Square in an event they have dubbed “a rally to stand up for science” in the Trump years.
Inside a large nearby convention center, meanwhile, the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the United States’ largest general scientific society, featured speeches and panel sessions further underscoring the sense that under President Trump, scientists could face wideranging political conflicts and challenges and will have to decide how to meet them.
At the opening plenary Thursday, the chair of the board of the AAAS criticized Trump’s executive order on immigration; the next night, a prominent historian suggested to scientists that there is nothing wrong with taking political stands. Albert Einstein did it, after all, over the atomic bomb.
“We live in a world where many people are trying to silence facts,” said Harvard scholar Naomi Oreskes. She told a vast hall of hundreds of scientists that history does not support the idea that “taking a public position on an urgent issue undermines the credibility of science.”
And yet the challenges for scientists during the Trump administration could not only be bigger, but also potentially more diverse, than those seen during George W. Bush’s administration — a key reference point in the research community for thinking about problems at the intersection of science and politics.
During the Bush years, a number of science controversies arose related to suppression of scientific information or interference with its dissemination, as numerous government scientists and experts charged that they had been blocked from speaking to the media or that scientific documents had been politically edited.
In those days, the threat of deep cuts to research funding did not loom as large as it does now. And today’s science world has also mobilized over Trump’s immigration executive order; more than 100 scientific societies and universities registered their concern in a recent letter to the president.
The anticipation of a multipronged battle is shared by the marchers, organized by the Natural History Museum, ClimateTruth, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and numerous other groups.
“It’s so many different fronts — subtle, not so subtle, things that can affect directly or indirectly the health, the environment, the economy, all of these things,” said Astrid Caldas, a climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists who was set to speak at the march. “Depending on if we are talking about an executive order, or the gutting of EPA. So it’s a complex situation, and it’s a unique situation.”
The organizers of the march — a smaller scale version of a major March for Science planned for Earth Day — charge that “from the muzzling of scientists and government agencies, to the immigration ban, the deletion of scientific data, and the de-funding of public science, the erosion of our institutions of science is a dangerous direction for our country.”
Inside the conference Friday, however, more cautious science policy experts warned that Bushstyle problems over the suppression and interference with science have not yet clearly emerged under Trump. They stressed that temporary communication freezes during a government transition are not abnormal and that there are new protections in place for scientists, such as federal scientific integrity directives, that did not exist in the Bush years.
“We have [government] scientists attending the conference here. I think it’s a little too early to say that scientists are going to be inhibited and incapable of speaking or publishing their research. But we are monitoring it,” said Joanne Carney, director of the office of government relations at the AAAS, at the Friday science policy panel.
Still, some federal researchers may be self-censoring out of concern for what they may face.
“Fear is higher,” said Robert Cook-Deegan, a science and health policy expert at Arizona State University, at the Friday session. “If you’re a federal employee, I think there’s going to be a level of self-scrutiny that is higher than it has been in past administrations.”
However, the speakers underscored that scientists could simultaneously face a vast new challenge over securing federal research funding and maintaining it at current levels.
Citing federal budget trends, with an expected tax cut and infrastructure spending program as well as a possible dismantling of the Affordable Care Act, William Bonvillian, director of MIT’s Washington office, said that discretionary federal spending is set to be squeezed. That, in turn, can be expected to hit scientific research budgets, he said, and in turn, the federal- and universitybased research community.
“There is going to be a challenge” to research and development programs, Bonvillian said. “We’re going to need to tell the story, that R&D is actually a key part of the solution, it’s part of growth. But the challenge this time in telling that story is going to be even greater than usual.”