Harkness Tower on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Conn. (Stan Godlewski for The Washington Post.)

Katerina Politi, PhD, works in the departments of pathology and medicine (medical oncology) and Valerie Reinke, PhD, in the department of genetics at Yale University School of Medicine. Here, they argue that President Trump’s appointments to leadership positions and his executive order on immigration threaten U.S. scientific progress.

Katerina Politi, PhD, Yale University School of Medicine (Photo courtesy of Yale) Katerina Politi, PhD,
Yale University School of Medicine (Courtesy of Yale)

As the global leader, the United States has proven that both science and democracy are the most effective systems we’ve developed to organize, understand and improve our world.

The continued success of U.S. scientific research requires expert leadership, consistent financial support and opportunities for the most talented individuals including foreign scientists, women and minorities to pursue scientific careers.

The prospective appointments of inexperienced, anti-science individuals in key leadership positions in the Trump administration along with more restrictive immigration policies threaten to jeopardize our scientific progress, making American science more vulnerable than at any other time in recent memory.

Experts with profound knowledge of a given field are best equipped to understand, value and support fundamental research, and to know how to balance it with applied research. Perhaps most importantly, autonomy is essential for scientific progress, and government interference in science can hinder conceptual and practical innovation.

Recent history has taught us this powerful lesson: Communist regimes in Russia and China in the 20th century controlled scientific inquiry in a manner that contributed to stagnation and decline. Only when this control was relaxed did science in those countries begin to recover.

Similarly, today scientists should be able to perform research on climate change, stem cells, and many other fields independent of political or ideological influences. The plans of the incoming administration include appointing a nonexpert like Rick Perry to head the Energy Department and requesting the names of personnel at the department involved in climate change research.

These are among the many ominous signs that the autonomy of science could be at risk. We urge Congress to vote against the confirmation of candidates chosen by the president who directly jeopardize scientific progress.

The president should recruit respected experts within the scientific community to participate in key postings. It only makes sense to select the most outstanding scientific leaders to lead American research and development.

People with an aptitude for scientific inquiry come in every shape, size, sex, creed and color, and many studies have indicated that diversity in the workplace leads to increased creativity and productivity. While strides have been made in improving the representation of scientists beyond white males in STEM disciplines, much still needs to be achieved.

We urge the administration to promote STEM programs at all levels of education and encourage the inclusion and fostering of historically underrepresented populations. Importantly, the U.S. has long been the vanguard of scientific progress, and, as such, is a magnet for the best and brightest minds everywhere.

Stricter immigration laws, like the recently implemented executive order temporarily banning individuals from seven majority Muslim countries, could deeply damage the long-held practice of international cooperation and erode the leadership position that America has long taken for granted.

Valerie Reinke, PhD, Yale University School of Medicine (Photo courtesy of Yale) Valerie Reinke, PhD, Yale University School of Medicine (Courtesy of Yale)

Funding for scientific research has stagnated over the past 15 years, and the consequences are becoming increasingly apparent, with reduced numbers of U.S. citizens and permanent residents pursuing STEM PhD degrees and lower success rates for grant applications, leading to the interruption or early termination of research projects.

Government funding for research and development represented close to 8 percent of the total federal budget in 1970, ensuring global leadership and innovation in the sciences.

Currently it is less than 4 percent of the federal budget.

This research benefits the private sector, which leverages fundamental research from academic laboratories, and is generally geared toward improving health and quality of life. Stymying government-funded research would be the equivalent of pulling the rug out from under the feet of privately sponsored research.

Signs of recovery are beginning to emerge, for example in biomedical research, with increased appropriations to the National Institutes of Health in the 2016 fiscal year, and the recent passing of the 21st Century Cures Act. The current administration should reverse its stance and support robust appropriations for scientific research in annual government budgets.

The selection of anti-science individuals like Rep. Mick Mulvaney, who has gone as far as to question whether the government should fund research at all, to lead the Office of Management and Budget represents a major threat. Their appointments should be reconsidered.

The recent box-office hit “Hidden Figures” tells the true story of America’s financial commitment to NASA and the role played by three African American women, whose mathematical, engineering, and computational expertise were essential to human space flight. The administration should continue our history of scientific leadership in the world by appointing leaders who are experts in their field, supporting both public and private investment, and educating and promoting the most talented, inquiring minds, whatever their race, gender, religion or birthplace.