Sunday, February 19, 2017

Under Trump, Scientists Could Face More Sweeping Challenges Than They Did Under George W. Bush - The Washington Post

People hold signs as they listen to a group of scientists speak during a rally in conjunction with the American Geophysical Union’s meeting on Dec. 13, 2016, in San Francisco. (Credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press) Click to Enlarge.
A group of scientists and their supporters are set to march Sunday in Boston’s Copley Square in an event they’ve 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, has featured speeches and panel sessions further underscoring the sense that under President Trump, scientists could face wide-ranging political conflicts and challenges, and will have to decide how to meet them.

At the opening plenary, 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’s nothing wrong with taking political stands.  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 between 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 they’d 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 didn’t loom so 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 multi-pronged 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 Bush-style 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 didn’t exist in the Bush years.

“It’s too early to say that there is going to be some across-the-board freeze on the ability of scientists to communicate,” said Joanne Carney, director of the office of government relations at the AAAS, at the Friday science policy panel.  “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.”

Granted, that doesn’t mean that federal researchers aren’t already 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.”

Read more at Under Trump, Scientists Could Face More Sweeping Challenges Than They Did Under George W. Bush

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