The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Scientists are really, really worried about Donald Trump

President-elect Donald Trump. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

As soon as the election result became clear — Donald Trump would be America's next president — ecologist Kelly Ramirez began reaching out to friends and female colleagues. Over email, the scientists anxiously discussed what the election would mean for scientific research and for the diverse group of people who conduct it.

“The hateful [campaign] rhetoric towards minorities, women, LBGTQIA, immigrants, and people with disabilities, coupled with the barrage of anti-science and anti-knowledge sentiment was difficult to take,” Ramirez wrote in a blog post for Scientific American. “Especially alone.”

By the weekend, the email group had grown to 100 women. Then 200. They drafted an open letter in defense of inclusivity and the scientific process — including the need to fight climate change — and posted it online nine days after the election. As of Tuesday night, more than 10,500 people have signed it.

22 Nobel Prize winners urge Trump to respect 'scientific integrity and independence'

Scientists generally strive to stay apolitical. For one thing, their research could depend on funding from politicians of any party. For another, scientifically proven fact does not — or at least, should not — have a political affiliation.

But Trump's election has inspired several letters like Ramirez's. During the campaign, he made claims that flew in the face of established science, such as falsely connecting vaccines to autism and casting doubt on the reality of climate change even though at least 97 percent of researchers think that global warming is a result of human activity. Trump offered few clues about his position on funding for research.

The president-elect's campaign vow to “cancel” the Paris climate agreement prompted hundreds of scientists to issue a letter condemning the position. Since the election, physicists Paul Nakroshis and Mark Battle have been drafting a similar petition in defense of climate science to be signed by astronomy and physics faculty at universities across the country.

“Ignoring the science is done at our peril,” Nakroshis said.

Donald Trump will enter the White House with an environmental policy agenda opposed to that of the Obama administration. (Video: Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

Since the election, the campaign's adviser on space policy, former congressman Robert Walker, has suggested that the new administration would cut NASA's budget for earth science. Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), who has been nominated by Trump to head the Department of Health and Human Services, has backed cuts to federal spending on biomedical research. Trump has also continued to ride a wave of anti-elite sentiment that some worry will morph into anti-intellectual, anti-expert thinking once he is in office.

Trump and Pence on science, in their own words

“There’s clearly uncertainty following the election about how science will be treated, how the new administration will use science in coming to a good decision,” said Rush Holt, a former Democratic congressman from New Jersey who is now chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “It was clear that the election and the victor were about rejecting the political establishment, and we want to make sure that doesn’t mean rejecting established scientific understanding.”

Last week, the AAAS 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. “Its one thing to say out with the old in with the new,” Holt said, “but you don’t want to say out with the tested and in with the untested when it comes to knowledge.”

What will President Trump mean for science?

Concern about the role of scientific research in the new administration prompted the Union of Concerned Scientists to organize an open letter calling on Trump and Congress to “adhere to high standards of scientific integrity and independence in responding to current and emerging public health and environmental health threats.” The letter, published Wednesday, is signed by more than 2,300 scientists, including 22 Nobel laureates.

“We need to make sure there’s not political manipulation of the science,” said Andrew Rosenberg, who directs the union’s Center for Science and Democracy. The letter echoes one released by the same group in 2004, after President George W. Bush had been involved in questions over disregarding or suppressing scientific research.

Some in science are also worried about the intolerance they say has been associated with Trump's campaign. On Tuesday, before a visit from Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon to Harvard University, more than 300 members of the faculty of nearby MIT released a statement committing “to uphold and defend fundamental principles of inclusivity and scientific inquiry in the wake of a presidential campaign and transition wrought with rhetoric threatening these principles.”

What's Donald Trump's position on climate change? All of them.

“The President-elect has appointed individuals to positions of power who have endorsed racism, misogyny and religious bigotry, and denied the widespread scientific consensus on climate change,” the statement said. “Regardless of our political views, these endorsements violate principles at the core of MIT’s mission.”

Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News who published articles that belittled feminists, demonized Muslims and Jews, and stoked fear of immigrants, was appointed Trump's senior White House counselor shortly after the election. Other recent Trump appointees have made incendiary remarks about Muslims and suggested that gay people can be “reformed.”

Several academic and scientific organizations have issued statements in support of science and diversity similar to the one from MIT, including the American Association of University Professors, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the University of California and the Genetics Society of America, among others.

Scientists have also expressed concerns about the effect of Trump's immigration policies on their work. According to the National Science Foundation, there are more than 5 million immigrants working as scientists and engineers in the United States.

Naglaa Shoukry, an Egyptian-born immunologist at the University of Montreal, had been considering a move to the United States before the election to pursue better funding for her research. She told Nature that she has abandoned that plan, in light of Trump's pledge to subject immigrants from her country to “extreme vetting.”

A week after the election, Holt published an editorial in Science magazine rallying scientists to advocate for their work during the new administration. He said that his organization, the largest general scientific society in the world, has increased its recruitment advertising in the wake of the election.

“A lot of our members and potential members were saying this is a time when we must speak out on behalf of science,” Holt said.

Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly identified Rush Holt as a former congressperson from West Virginia. Holt was a representative from New Jersey.

Read more:

Dear Science: Why do we cry?

Too much space travel is hazardous for your eyeballs

A scientist maps animals' teeth to figure out what's on their menu