Less than a year ago, Bill Nye was the scientific community's bow-tied spirit animal, preparing to lead a legion of scientists in protesting what they called President Trump's assault on science.
As The Washington Post's Caitlin Gibson wrote before the Nye-chaired March for Science, Nye “has become more than the zany educator-entertainer who charmed kids with cartoonish sound effects. He is an activist for science, leading those now-grownups into political battle.”
Now, Nye finds himself in the crosshairs of that same community after many say he spent Tuesday night hobnobbing with the enemy: Sitting next to Trump's pick to head NASA at the State of the Union address.
The conflict has been brewing for weeks, since the Planetary Society announced that Nye, its CEO, had accepted an invitation to attend the speech with Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), whom Trump tapped to lead NASA in September.
“When a congressman and current nominee for NASA Administrator asks you to be his guest at the State of the Union address in Washington, D.C., how do you respond?” the society said in making the announcement. “For us, the answer was easy. Yes, Bill would be there.”
What has not been easy has been dealing with the fallout from a decision that has angered a vocal group of people in the scientific community.
The group 500 Women Scientists wrote in an editorial in Scientific American that Nye's presence lent credibility to Bridenstine and, ostensibly, to Trump, despite viewpoints some say are anti-science:
As scientists, we cannot stand by while Nye lends our community’s credibility to a man who would undermine the United States’ most prominent science agency. And we cannot stand by while Nye uses his public persona as a science entertainer to support an administration that is expressly xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic, racist, ableist, and anti-science.
Even before he entered the Capitol, Nye was engaged in damage control:
Casey Dreier, director of space policy for the Planetary Society, defended Nye in a post on the society's page. He said Nye's attendance at the State of the Union does not endorse Bridenstine's opinions or nomination to head NASA. The society is “committed to working with whoever serves in that position,” he wrote.
“Space exploration is one of the few areas of politics that still offers significant opportunities for bipartisan rapprochement,” Dreier wrote. “A shared passion for space can lay the groundwork for a relationship between individuals of very different political beliefs.”
Dreier also said some people were misrepresenting Bridenstine's stances, particularly the ones on climate change.
As The Post's Christian Davenport wrote, the congressman walked a fine line on the issue during his confirmation hearing.
During the hearing, Bridenstine said he “absolutely” believes in climate change, that it is already having devastating effects and that humans contribute to it. But he demurred when asked whether human activity was the leading cause, saying more study was needed. In response to questions, he vowed to protect the integrity of NASA’s research, and to keep it an “apolitical” organization that should be driven by science, not politics.
As Davenport wrote, “a growing chorus of opponents” has blasted Bridenstine since his nomination, including fellow house members who say his beliefs — notably opposition to same-sex marriage and the Violence Against Women Act — mean that he is out of step with the mores of NASA.
But he has also garnered the support of industry groups such as the Commercial Spaceflight Federation and of Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon.