This first year of President Donald Trump’s administration has been a bleak time for US science. Trump flirted with the anti-vaccine movement, nominated officials with dubious scientific credentials, and put the Environmental Protection Agency in the hands of Scott Pruitt, whose main qualification seemed to be his opposition to the agency’s core mission.
Twice in 2017, the New York Times editorial board railed against Trump’s “war on science” — first after his administration released a budget request that would have slashed spending on research, then after the National Academies were told to stop working on a study of the health effects of mountaintop removal coal mining.
“When you have people who don’t know much about science and stand in denial of science and rise to power, that is a recipe for the dismantling of our informed democracy,” said Neil deGrasse Tyson, TV science personality and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, in April 2017.
But is there really a war on science? As the anniversary of Trump’s inauguration approaches, BuzzFeed News asked scientists and policy experts on the front lines for their thoughts on how best to survive the Trump era. Here’s what they said.
Stop calling it a “war on science.” It’s more complicated than that.
Science is in a perilous position, the experts said, but most agreed that there is no war on science, as such. The budget request, hurriedly cribbed from a right-wing think tank’s vision for limited government, was dead on arrival in Congress and so is best seen as a red herring. And if Trump had really declared war on science, it’s hard to see why he left the National Institutes of Health — which pumps more than $30 billion a year into biomedical research — in the hands of a leading scientist appointed by Barack Obama: former Human Genome Project head Francis Collins.
Science has taken collateral damage, as a president who embraces “alternative facts” ignores traditional standards of evidence — but this is just one symptom of a wider information war.
“Donald Trump has really worked hard to lay waste to any type of institution that would challenge him,” Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told BuzzFeed News. “It gets to a point where all information, including scientific information, can be perceived as political.”
“It’s not a surprise that science becomes a casualty,” Halpern added.
For the most part, science has not been attacked outright, but sidelined, ignored by a president who shuns evidence and expertise.
The administration has even been slow to marshal the nation’s scientific and medical expertise to address one of Trump’s campaign priorities: a surging epidemic of opioid abuse. Trump finally declared a public health emergency in October 2017, but proposed no additional funds to tackle a crisis that has driven overall US life expectancy to fall for two years straight.
Trump lacks a science adviser — the longest the position has remained unfilled since 1976, when the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which the adviser heads, was created. Even if Trump had a science supremo, it’s hard to imagine that person having the president’s ear.
More worrying are the vacancies once occupied by qualified scientists across the rest of the government, as career civil servants have left and Trump has been slow to fill open spots. Expertise on subjects from protecting endangered species to preventing a catastrophic nuclear accident has dwindled.
“Unfortunately, with so many vacant positions in federal government leadership, science does not even appear to be at the table,” Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, told BuzzFeed News by email.
The White House denied that there is a problem with scientific expertise in the administration. “The scientific workforce at our agencies are extremely accomplished, capable, and continue to serve this country with distinction,” a spokesperson said in a statement to BuzzFeed News.
But on one front — the science behind environmental regulation — the administration is arguably engaged in a real war.
EPA chief Pruitt, for example, took steps to replace scientific advisers with industry representatives and proposed relitigating the scientific consensus on climate change in a military-style “red team, blue team” exercise. Meanwhile, Pruitt pressed Trump to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, and proposed rolling back Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
The EPA rejected the view that it is hostile to science. “Administrator Scott Pruitt has made it a priority to use independent, sound science to better inform Agency decision-making and advance our core mission of protecting public health and the environment,” EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox told BuzzFeed News in a statement.
Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, meanwhile, wants to open public lands and coastal waters to mining and drilling. In May 2017, he suspended the activities of more than 200 advisory panels, about one-third of them science-based, while their “charter and charge” was reviewed.
“I don’t think it’s an antipathy towards science per se,” climate scientist Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University told BuzzFeed News. “It’s an antipathy towards science that threatens certain vested interests.”
It’s no surprise, then, that most of the significant events for science in the Trump administration stem from Pruitt’s actions at the EPA.
React to what’s really going on, not your worst fears of what might happen.
Understanding exactly what’s motivating the Trump administration’s positions on science — or lack of them — is important, experts consulted by BuzzFeed News said, to avoid wasted effort or self-defeating missteps.
As soon as it became clear on the evening of Nov. 8, 2016, that Trump was heading toward a shock election victory, scientists feared a backlash, given that they had overwhelmingly opposed his candidacy.
For the first few months, they worried that the Trump administration would start deleting government datasets — especially those involved in environmental monitoring. So volunteers started a “guerrilla archiving” effort, copying vast quantities of federal data onto independent computer servers.
One year on from Trump’s inauguration, government data on the environment is a little harder to find than it once was, as federal websites have been rewritten to remove prominent references to climate change. And continued funding for data-gathering remains a real concern. “We were always most worried about future data,” Bethany Wiggin of the University of Pennsylvania, a leader of the Data Refuge project, told BuzzFeed News.
But for the most part, the data used by scientists has remained untouched, and the archiving efforts seem largely superfluous. Federal climate data remains online, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration continues to put out press releases highlighting trends in global warming and extreme weather.
Fears about censorship also surfaced in August 2017, when an anonymous source involved in the National Climate Assessment told the New York Times that he and others feared that the report would be suppressed by the White House.
The story surprised seasoned observers of science policy, who could see no evidence that anything was going wrong with the usual review process. And they worried that scientists’ angst could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“That got a ton of public attention,” Halpern of the Union of Concerned Scientists said. “It’s almost like poking a stick in the eye of the administration and daring them to censor it.”
In November, the report was published intact, painting a grim picture of the extent of climate change and its consequences. It flatly contradicted the positions of Pruitt and his allies — but made no difference at all to their enthusiasm for rolling back the Obama administration’s climate policies.
There’s a lesson here: Some senior figures in the Trump administration are shameless about ignoring science, and so may see little need to actively suppress it.
Another danger, National Academy of Sciences president McNutt told BuzzFeed News, is self-censorship. That may explain a report from December 2017 that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had issued staff with a list of “forbidden” words and phrases — including “fetus,” “transgender,” “science-based,” and “evidence-based” — that should not be used in documents framing the agency’s budget request to Congress.
CDC director Brenda Fitzgerald quickly denied that any words were banned, saying that “confusion arose from a staff-level discussion at a routine meeting about how to present CDC’s budget.”
Aligning science with the Democratic Party is not a good long-term strategy.
One reason Pruitt and his allies can blithely ignore scientific evidence, without fear of a backlash from their own supporters, is a cultural shift that’s accelerated over the last few election cycles. Where once there was a bipartisan consensus that science is central to economic competitiveness and sound policy-making, now there is the perception that scientists are part of a liberal elite aligned with big-government Democrats, derided by the populist base that swept Trump to power.
The alignment between US science and the Democratic Party accelerated under George W. Bush, who was accused of waging his own war on science, based on his positions on embryonic stem cells and climate change. And it was reinforced by Obama’s promise to put science back in its “rightful place” at the heart of government. Now Trump has swung the needle to a place that has many scientists yearning for this November’s midterm elections, and the 2020 presidential election beyond that.
But scientific progress is a slow, steady haul. So the long-term future for US science looks shaky, if all the future holds is a cycle of feast and famine, depending on which party happens to occupy the White House or control Congress.
“The scientific community needs to work on its relationship with the Republican Party, and to begin to identify points of agreement around the value of science,” Clark Miller, a specialist in science and technology policy at Arizona State University, told BuzzFeed News. “What the scientific institutions could be doing is systematically rebuilding the view that science is good for US business.”
Remember that the White House is not the only seat of power.
There is little point trying to engage Trump with a pro-business message about science: His view of business success seems entirely transactional, winning or losing through short-term deals. But away from the Oval Office and Pruitt’s EPA, there are pockets of the Trump administration that seem interested in evidence and rational policies.
For example, Trump’s FDA commissioner, Scott Gottlieb, is getting good reviews for what’s happened with stem cells on his watch. Not only did the agency launch a new program to help biotech companies win approval for novel biological therapies, it has also started to more aggressively pursue rogue clinics. After doctors revealed in March that a clinic in Florida had blinded three women who had stem cells injected into their eyeballs, the FDA sent in its inspectors, finding numerous other problems.
“Stem cell clinics that mislead vulnerable patients into believing they are being given safe, effective treatments that are in full compliance with the law are dangerously exploiting consumers and putting their health at risk,” Gottlieb said in a press release highlighting the FDA’s action against the clinic.
Some scientists consider this an improvement from the Obama years, when the FDA was slow to put in place guidelines for the approval of stem cell therapies backed by scientific evidence and failed to crack down on hundreds of clinics offering unproven treatments.
“My general sense is one of being pleasantly surprised about the FDA under the new commissioner,” Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell biologist at the University of California, Davis, told BuzzFeed News.
Other scientists won’t be able to find high-profile allies within the Trump administration, but that doesn’t mean they have to sit on their hands and wait for the next election. There are still Republicans in Congress, and in statehouses across the country, who are prepared to listen to what scientists have to say.
Even environmental scientists who are genuinely on the front lines of a war with the Trump administration can engage: Decisions by Pruitt’s EPA will be challenged in the courts, in cases that will hinge on not only legal but scientific arguments.
Remind anyone who will listen how science can improve their lives.
Opposition to the Trump agenda has brought many scientists out of the lab and into the streets. That was most obvious during the March for Science, a protest held in more than 600 cities across six continents on Earth Day in April. More generally, scientists — especially younger scientists — are entering the public arena like never before.
“I see a lot more scientists joining organizations, engaging with members of Congress, developing relationships with reporters,” Halpern said.
But this blossoming of political activism might also make it harder to dispel the notion that scientists are just another special interest group, fighting for their own share of the pie. Some of the banners displayed at the March for Science, denouncing cuts to science funding, didn’t help, Arizona State’s Miller warned. “Public funding is not a right — it’s a privilege,” he said.
“People have come to think that science is what scientists do,” Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told BuzzFeed News. In reality, it’s a way of asking and answering questions that should be open to all. “Evidence is not just for experts — evidence is for everyone,” Holt said.
Science delivered the technology that powers our smartphones and has been in the vanguard of every important advance in medicine. It’s the reason the whistle was blown about lead in Flint’s water. Scientists can and should talk about how their work affects the real world, not just Washington, Halpern said. “It all comes down to making it real to people.” ●
With additional reporting from Azeen Ghorayshi, Zahra Hirji, Virginia Hughes, Stephanie Lee, Nidhi Subbaraman, and Dan Vergano.