Democracy Dies in Darkness

Speaking of Science

The nation's top scientists can't get through to Trump -- and they're alarmed

By Joel Achenbach

January 26, 2017 at 6:11 PM

Protesters gather in front of the offices of Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) as part of a nationwide rally organized to protest the nominations of climate change deniers in the cabinet of President Donald Trump on Jan. 9.  (Justin Lane/European Pressphoto Agency)

Leaders of several of the nation's top science organizations say they've been shunned by the Trump administration and are alarmed by signs that the administration will muzzle government researchers and reject the scientific evidence that informs such critical issues as vaccine safety and climate change.

Their comments in interviews with The Washington Post come as scientists around the country are considering a grass-roots revolt against President Trump that could include a march on Washington. The sudden eruption of activism among people typically more comfortable in a laboratory or manipulating equations was incited in part by reports that the Trump administration is restricting the ability of government employees, including scientists, to communicate with the public.

"The signals are not encouraging, and they're alarming, and they're causing a lot of fear in the scientific community," said Christine McEntee, chief executive and executive director of the American Geophysical Union.

"I've never seen the scientific community so concerned," said Rush Holt, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "This goes way beyond funding. When fake news is accepted as just one of the alternate approaches, then there are serious problems to be addressed."

Matthew Scott, president of the Washington-based Carnegie Institution for Science, said he was dismayed that, during the transition, Trump's team did not embrace input from the leaders of the scientific community.

Related: [Fake news and creeping surrealism]

"There doesn't seem to be anyone responding to inquiries from these leaders of extremely important organizations of scientists," Scott said. "What's happening is that scientists are being excluded, as far as we can tell, in advising the government and participating in the government even though there are many scientists who view it as an imperative to serve their country."

A more optimistic note was sounded, however, by Marcia McNutt, the president of the National Academy of Sciences. McNutt, who served as the head of the U.S. Geological Survey during the first term of President Obama, said in an email late Wednesday, "The NAS has found receptive members of the Trump administration who are supportive of science and willing to discuss input." (She said she was boarding a plane for an international flight and did not provide further details of those communication efforts.)

The flaring conflict with the Trump administration is a delicate matter for the leaders of science organizations, which are nonpartisan by tradition, just as science itself is a method of inquiry that is ideologically neutral. These organizations represent scientists across the country who frequently depend on government funding for their research. For philosophical and practical reasons they do not want to be seen as a political community.

Thus Holt, learning Wednesday afternoon of the grass-roots revolt of scientists and the possibility of a Washington protest, asked staffers at a meeting whether they thought this would be a good idea. He said he asked his colleagues, "What will be accomplished by this march? Who is the audience? What is the message? What is the message that will be sent, what is the message that will be heard?"

McEntee, of the AGU, said of the march, "If it's a neutral and nonpartisan voice for the value of science and the work of scientists, we would consider endorsing it, but we need to find out more information."

That caution, however, may soon be overwhelmed by the sense of alarm, as scientific leaders on a daily basis witness the broad takeover of the U.S. government by politicians expressing anti-scientific views. At the top of that list of politicians is President Trump. When he campaigned for office, he said, "I am not a great believer in man-made climate change." Three years ago today, Trump tweeted, "Any and all weather events are used by the GLOBAL WARMING HOAXSTERS to justify higher taxes to save our planet! They don't believe it $$$$!"

Earlier this month Trump met with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., after which Kennedy, an ardent promoter of the discredited notion that vaccines cause autism, said Trump asked him to chair a presidential commission on vaccine safety and scientific integrity. The Trump transition team quickly said no decision has been made about such a commission. But Trump has also promoted the discredited vaccine-autism link.

Soon after the election, Holt, a physicist and former Democratic congressman from New Jersey, and 28 other leaders of scientific organizations wrote a letter to President-elect Trump asking for a meeting and urging Trump to appoint quickly a respected science adviser. Holt said he received only a cursory response and has yet to meet with anyone associated with Trump. He said he's also written to every Cabinet nominee. These efforts have been fruitless, he said.

The president so far has not nominated anyone to head NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey, or the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, to list just a few of the major political appointments he will need to make. He has asked Francis Collins to stay on for now as the head of the National Institutes of Health, but that could be temporary.

Related: [Essay: Why science is so hard to believe]

The last two heads of the Department of Energy, which operates several of the nation's most important scientific laboratories and oversees the safety of the nuclear weapons stockpile, have been physicists. Trump nominated former Texas governor Rick Perry.

Holt and other science leaders are watching closely to see if the administration muzzles government scientists.

"The gag orders in some of the departments might be naive mistakes by inexperienced transition people. They might be trial balloons. If they're trial balloons of a policy about to be put in place, we want it known, far and wide, that that's unacceptable," Holt said.

He went on: "Next month there'll be a crisis, or the month after that. It might be an oil well blowout, it might be an emerging disease, and you don't want to get up to speed then. For his sake, he'd better surround himself with people who appreciate science."

Demonstrators gather protesting climate change outside the office of Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) in New York on Jan. 9. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Read more:

America is really more divided than ever

Five big unanswered science questions

Will Trump echo JFK's moonshot and vow to send humans to Mars?


Joel Achenbach covers science and politics for the National Desk. Achenbach also helms the "Achenblog."

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