For scientists who have watched in horror as President Donald Trump relentlessly insulted, undermined, and ignored science, while more than 236,000 Americans died during a historic pandemic, Joe Biden’s victory on Saturday was a long-awaited cause for celebration.
“It feels very much like the four-year war on science has come to an end,” Jacquelyn Gill, an ecologist at the University of Maine, told BuzzFeed News.
“I feel a huge sense of relief,” said Jennifer Glass, associate professor of astrobiology at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “I finally feel hope again after four years of attacks on science and facts.”
“I am ecstatic,” said Bob Wachter, chair of the University of California at San Francisco’s department of medicine. “It’s a victory for science and it gives us some hope that we will right things, not only for COVID specifically, but for the general approach that our government is taking towards science, truth, and competence.”
And yet, even though Biden received a historic number of votes to clinch the presidency, scientists said that the widespread show of support for Trump shows how much work remains to be done.
In a number of hotly contested battleground states, the former vice-president narrowly edged out an opponent who won more than 70 million votes overall. Trump’s stronger-than-predicted showing saddened — though not necessarily surprised — doctors and scientists who have been watching as the coronavirus infected millions of Americans, and as record-breaking wildfires burned the West, under Trump’s watch.
“People have decided that Trumpian values — nationalism, white supremacy — are more important than anything else including a generational pandemic, including their own families in some cases,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University.
“Every election cycle, we say health care is on the ballot,” said Esther Choo, an emergency physician and professor at Oregon Health and Science University. This year, “a health issue was the most dominant topic for the entire world and the United States. It has never so much been on the ballot. I think that still did not make this election cycle obvious.”
Wachter said Biden’s presidency is at least an opportunity for a fresh start.
“I see the mishandling of COVID as being tragic in its own right, but also being emblematic of a broader set of policies and attitudes that are only going to get us into more trouble,” he said. “We just can’t get this right if we don’t agree on facts and respect expertise and competence and apply those things to attacking really hard problems. I’m confident we’ll begin doing that now.”
The coronavirus is surging at out-of-control rates in much of the country, which this week reported a record-breaking 100,000 new cases in a day. For months, health and medical experts have implored the Trump administration to deploy strategies taken by other countries — from scaling up testing, contact tracing, and personal protective equipment, to enforcing mask use and social distancing measures to suppress transmission.
To their great frustration, their pleas have mostly fallen on deaf ears.
There is still not enough testing or PPE, and cases are now so ubiquitous that identifying the source of outbreaks is becoming impossible. Trump himself shunned masks and physical distancing and staged large rallies with little mask-wearing. He told the world not to fear the virus, even when he was infected with it, and falsely claimed that “it will disappear.” He staked the country’s recovery on the promise of vaccines and treatments, including drugs with little evidence, while seemingly all but giving up on controlling or preventing cases. He made the dangerous suggestion that bleach could be a cure. He sidelined Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, and elevated neuroradiologist Scott Atlas, who favors the controversial strategy of letting the virus spread unchecked among healthy people in a fully reopened society.
And at a time when scientists warn that the world is rapidly warming and climate disasters are getting more frequent and intense, Trump refused to even acknowledge the reality of it all. As the West battled one of its most destructive wildfire seasons ever, Trump baselessly told California officials: “It will start getting cooler, you just watch.” His administration filled agencies with climate deniers, unraveled and watered down numerous environmental regulations, pulled the US out of the Paris climate accord, buried climate studies, and opened up swaths of public land for oil and gas drilling.
Amir Jina, a University of Chicago economist who studies climate change, said he increasingly felt over the course of the Trump administration like his work was futile. “There are definitely times, I, like other people, over the last few years would wake up in the morning and say, ‘Well, I’m going to spend my day at my computer doing some research. What’s actually going to happen with that research? Why am I doing this?’” he said.
As ballots were tabulated throughout the week, giving Trump nearly half the votes, it became clear that even in states with rampant virus transmission or climate-fueled heat, flooding, and hurricanes, these crises did not resonate with a significant swath of the electorate.
Jane Zelikova, an ecologist at the University of Wyoming, said she didn’t understand how so many people could have voted for Trump while around three-fourths of the country knows climate change is happening. “I don’t understand the math of that,” she said.
“I thought it would be close, maybe not this close,” said Art Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. “People are worried about losing their jobs, and Trump was promising to keep businesses open, even if it was all smoke and mirrors. And there is coronavirus fatigue, sadly.”
“The worrisome part is how strongly some people are able to construct and maintain a worldview that is straightforwardly incompatible with reality,” said Sean Carroll, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology. “The problem, in other words, isn’t that they reject truth or reality, but that their partisan commitments are so strong that ordinary truth-finding methods are failing them.”
Ultimately, Biden’s victory was clear. The former vice-president received more votes than any other presidential candidate in history and, in the popular vote, won by a greater margin than Clinton’s over Trump in 2016. If Biden ends up taking states where he led as of Saturday morning, such as Arizona, Nevada, and Georgia, his electoral vote total would comfortably exceed the 270 needed to win.
At the same time, Trump won more votes than he did in 2016 and held onto major states like Ohio, Florida, and Texas. And even though they lost the White House, Republicans gained House seats and will likely hang on to their Senate majority, dependent on a pair of run-off races in historically red Georgia in January. Without Democratic control there, Biden will likely have a much harder time achieving his agenda.
So far, Trump has said that he will not concede and will contest the results in court until there is an “honest vote count.” There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
Jack Goldstone, a sociologist at George Mason University, worried about potential unrest breaking out if Trump does not concede soon. “That will drag out the pain and deepen the wound, and the election I don’t think yet has moved America to the center of the political spectrum,” said Goldstone, who studies the factors that drive political violence and instability. “It’s left us still pushing in different directions, and if that doesn't change we're heading for continuing conflict and difficulty.”
Scientists generally lean left. In a survey conducted by the journal Nature, about 86% of 579 scientists planning to vote said they supported Biden and named the coronavirus and climate change as their top issues. The economy, on the other hand, was the main concern for those backing Trump. That mirrors the split among voters’ priorities nationwide.
But scientists have also traditionally stayed out of politics and activism, preferring to let their research speak for itself. That changed during the Trump administration.
“I think a lot of people have realized that just standing on the sidelines and trying to be ‘objective’ has not served our scientific community or the people we’re here to serve as scientists,” said Gill, the ecologist at the University of Maine. “Whether we’re working for government agencies or receiving government funding, we’re working on issues for the public good. I think a lot of scientists are realizing our position as public servants is tenuous in ways we didn’t appreciate before. I think we’ve gone through a one-way door.”
The profession’s shift toward speaking up became even clearer this election, when historically neutral scientific institutions jumped into the fray. From high-profile journals and publications (Nature, Science, the Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine, Scientific American), to professional organizations (the National Academy of Sciences) and dozens of Nobel laureates, the scientific establishment issued unprecedented criticisms of Trump or full-throated endorsements of Biden.
That political participation can’t end just because Biden is in charge, scientists say. On the contrary: the real work needs to begin now.
That work will need to consist of essentially undoing all the damage the Trump administration did over the last four years. “We’ll be able to rejoin the Paris agreement, we’ll be able to have actual experts in the various scientific offices that have been empty, we’ll see an end to gag orders and silencing of government experts,” Gill said. “We may actually be able to get the work done of solving some of our biggest scientific problems, instead of fighting constantly for just the basic right to do science.”
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an assistant professor of physics and core faculty in women’s and gender studies at the University of New Hampshire, said that she hopes that the diverse, energized coalitions that elevated Biden into office will stay engaged.
“Booting Trump from the White House is a step in the right direction, but there’s a lot of work to do,” she said.
“Physicians and scientists, they’re supposed to keep their heads down and do their work, take care of their patients and do their research,” said Eric Topol, a cardiologist at Scripps Translational Science Institute. But “the old rules about ‘you just do your work’ … that’s history. It’s a whole new look now. We’ve got to rise to the challenge, and it’s profound.”