Trump’s Crackdown on Science
Editor’s Note: This blog is part of an ongoing series of contributions from participants in The German Marshall Fund’s flagship leadership development program, The Marshall Memorial Fellowship (MMF).
The United States has led the world in scientific research for decades. In the Times Higher Education 2018 University Ranking, six out of the top ten universities in the world are American. However, less than a year in, Donald Trump’s administration is already affecting science and research in the United States.
President Trump’s arrival to the White House brought along an administration hostile toward science and happy to disregard or tweak facts for political gain. Moves to crackdown on science range from removing “climate change” from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grants, citing fake science to justify the recent proposal to restrict access to birth control, and the removal of hundreds of data sets and scientific reports from governmental websites.
Recently, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that scientists with agency-awarded grants will be barred from serving on its independent advisory boards. Critics say this could open the door to more industry-friendly advisors on the panels, which provide scientific input for agency decisions on pollution and climate change regulation.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), founded in 1969 by scientists and students at MIT, is at the forefront of monitoring the Trump administration’s attack on science and supporting researchers across government and academia. Its Center for Science and Democracy at UCS now acts as a watchdog with an “Attacks on Science” database that lists cases of disappearing data, silenced scientists, and other assaults on scientific integrity and science-based policy.
While many are hoping that a more science-friendly government will replace the Trump administration in 2020, Trump’s policies could have long-term effects on American scientific leadership. As with Brexit in the U.K., U.S. universities are already seeing a drop in international students and staff. A negative narrative surrounding science and increasingly restrictive immigration policies are to blame. Funding cuts (with the exception of NASA), alongside scientific advisory bodies with vacant appointments, could also have long-term effects on U.S. leadership in science.
However, my trip as a GMF Marshall Memorial Fellow to the United States also gave me hope in the resilience of U.S. institutions and its scientific community. The new administration caused a paradigm shift in U.S. academia from whether scientists should engage with non-academic audiences to how they should engage. Previously, researchers were often reticent to engage with the public, media, and policymakers, yet the post-fact politics that characterize the U.S. government today do not allow scientists to withdraw to their ivory towers. They need to fight back and have already done so in several ways.
On April 22, one million people marched for science across the United States and the world. Participants called for evidence-based policymaking, government funding for scientific research, transparency, and government acceptance of the scientific consensus on climate change and evolution. The marches are only a part of growing political activity — American Scientists are taking their action a step further and are now running for office. A newly-formed group called 314 Action supports scientists who want to run in elections. Other organizations, such as Science Debate, raise scientific issues during election debates and hold candidates and elected officials accountable.
Public and private institutions such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are also stepping up efforts to compensate for cutbacks elsewhere. But most importantly, the United States is a federal country and U.S. universities are largely independent from the central government. We can already see cities and states leading at the subnational level and committing to continue the implementation of the Paris Agreement. And, as I was told by several colleagues in the United States, “American universities are used to not being supported by their government.” Paradoxically, in the current situation, that might be their biggest strength.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.