Since the election of Donald Trump, few groups have mobilized more quickly to try to influence his future decisions and appointments than scientists and environmentalists, constituencies that fear they could be marginalized once he takes the helm of the federal government in January.
Petitions and open letters have poured out in the past couple of weeks, including a call by nearly two dozen Nobel laureates that Trump defend “scientific integrity and independence” and a petition by more than 11,000 female scientists demanding that he respect inclusiveness and the scientific process. The efforts underscore how these individuals could be at the front lines of an oncoming political clash.
The two groups have different missions and interests — many scientists receive federal funding and work in academic institutions, while many national environmental groups rely on an independent financial donor base and concentrate their work on directly lobbying elected and appointed officials on policy matters.
But many fields of science have implications for conservation, climate change and other environmental issues that have been politicized, and scientists have become more vocal about their findings’ policy implications. Both groups have expressed concern about the next administration’s direction.
Physicist Neal Lane, who served as President Bill Clinton’s science adviser and is a professor emeritus at Rice University, said the scientific community as a whole is worried about threatened funding cuts, where he thinks “climate-related science and technology research and development is likely to be particularly attacked.”
An even deeper problem than funding cuts, though, he said, involves the “integrity” of scientific information.
“We saw it in the George W. Bush administration, and that was the federal government’s disregard for the integrity of science. The publicizing of demonstrably false information by several federal agencies,” Lane said. “I don’t want to prejudge anybody, but there’s at least a danger that this issue of integrity of scientific knowledge and information and the importance of accuracy in reporting to the public, that may not be fully respected or understood.”
Before the election, Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy prepared a nonpartisan scientific advisory report for the next president that outlined how the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy could best be staffed, resourced and operated. The institute contacted Republicans close to the Trump transition team who said they would forward the report, but Lane said he has not heard any feedback.
Trump’s team did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
A coalition of environmental groups has taken a more direct approach: On Thursday, 30 groups sent a letter to every senator, arguing they should support Cabinet nominees next year only if they are committed to key environmental safeguards. That missive came just hours after the League of Conservation Voters called on Trump’s three oldest children to ensure that the next president protects the environment, citing an open letter they and their father signed in 2009 urging President Obama to act on climate change.
Given the yawning political and ideological divide between these advocates and the president-elect’s team, the leverage scientists and environmentalists have with the next administration is tenuous.
“I don’t think the new Trump administration is going to be taking its cues from the environmentalist activist community,” said Scott Segal, a partner at the firm Bracewell LLP who represents coal companies and other energy firms. “These letters are about garnering attention, but are not even designed to be influential.”
LCV Senior Vice President Tiernan Sittenfeld, whose group plans to launch a petition drive next week following up on the letter that its president and board chair sent to Trump’s children, said that they are sincere attempts to influence policy.
“In no way did the elections give the incoming administration or the 115th Congress a mandate to roll back either recent environmental progress or our bedrock environmental laws,” she said, “and we also hope these letters help make crystal clear for all people in this country just how much is at stake.”
Academics have been moving to the left politically in recent years, and people with postgraduate degrees voted for Hillary Clinton over Trump by a 21-point margin, according to network exit polls, 58 percent to 37 percent. That’s a larger margin than either candidate achieved for any other educational group: Clinton won college graduates by five points, for example, while Trump won voters with a high school degree or less by the same margin.
Similarly, professors at U.S. colleges and universities seem to have been getting more and more liberal over time. Based on data from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, while only about 40 percent of professors had a “liberal or far left” ideology in 1990, that number was about 60 percent by 2014.
When it comes to national environmental groups, the alliance with Democrats is even tighter. These organizations spent more than $100 million during the 2016 election, and nearly all of that money went to Democrats.
But many scientists and academics are still mobilizing, in the hopes of influencing key selections and policy decisions in the coming four years.
Last week, the American Association for the Advancement of Science submitted a letter to the president-elect urging him to quickly appoint a science adviser and offering its members’ expertise on science and technology issues that might face the new administration.
“It’s one thing to say ‘out with the old, in with the new,’ ” said association chief executive Rush Holt, “but you don’t want to say ‘out with the tested and in with the untested’ when it comes to knowledge.”
On Capitol Hill, Senate Democrats are strategizing with environmentalists on how they can serve as a sort of “green firewall” against GOP proposals to roll back policies on climate change and other issues.
“There is no doubt Republicans are going to go after clean water and air protections with everything they’ve got, but I’m optimistic that they won’t have the votes they need in the Senate,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the incoming minority leader.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, for its part, is preparing for a world in which government scientists might face serious workplace restrictions. It is girding for battle, ready to receive information “securely” and “anonymously” should scientists encounter censorship from political appointees.
“We’ve been to this rodeo before, although the bull this time is a bit tougher,” wrote Michael Halpern, the union’s deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy, in an email. “Science advocacy used to be primarily about securing funding for research. Now many more scientists care just as much about how the science they create is used or misused to create policy. . . . We’ve heard all kinds of reactions to the election, but we haven’t heard indifference.”
Sarah Kaplan and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.