Sci­en­tists dis­cuss chal­lenges that may arise un­der Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY CHRIS MOONEY chris.mooney@wash­ More at wash­ing­ton­ news/en­ergy-en­vi­ron­ment

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.”

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