From the laboratories to the squares. In the American scientific community, a mass mobilization is growing against Trump.
The white coats are reacting to the anti-scientific rhetoric of the election campaign that brought to power a president who dismissed global warming as a hoax created by China, promised to slash federal science budgets and named alarming appointees to key environmental policy posts.
The protest was born in the virtual spaces of Reddit and Facebook and grew into real action, first with a Feb. 5 meeting at Copley Square in Boston, where hundreds of scientists converged. The next demonstration on April 22 in Washington will be much larger, a “March for Science” set to coincide with Earth Day.
Women have taken a leading role in the movement. Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard University, is among the most authoritative voices of protest. Maryam Zaringhalam, a molecular biologist of Iranian origin, is among the promoters of a new project, 500 Women Scientists. Created after the November election, the group works to open the scientific community to women and minorities.
Also in the forefront is Gretchen Goldman, research director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She spoke with us about “the beginning of a new movement of scientists.”
You deal with the relationship between science and institutional policy. What’s changing under the Trump government?
Already in the campaign Trump had adopted an anti-scientific rhetoric. Even after the inauguration, the president made it understood that he has little respect for science. Several government directives threaten scientific integrity. Scientists are anxious and upset. They fear profound changes in the way science is used — or ignored — in political decisions. Hence the demonstration. I have never seen the American scientific community so full of energy and interest in politics.
Is this a challenge for a certain scientific culture that tends to separate research from its social repercussions?
True, many scientists are not at ease in protests. They would prefer to stay in the laboratories, devote themselves to research. Many believe in the power of the facts, in the idea that it is enough to produce accurate data to guide policy decisions. We now know, however, that this is not the case.
You mentioned threats to scientific integrity. What did you mean?
I refer to the freedom of science to have a role in political decisions, without interference by industry or interest groups. Scientific integrity has to do with the freedom of scientists to communicate with the media and the public. It has to do with the circulation of scientific information free from political interference.
Under the Obama administration, 24 government agencies adopted protocols for the respect of scientific integrity, avoiding the political interference that proliferated at the time of Bush. They are important protective measures, but the new administration shows worrying signs. Some examples? In a newly installed policy, Trump has banned Environmental Protection Agency employees from speaking with reporters. Documents that until recently were public have been removed from the White House website. The ones about climate change have disappeared. The Department of Agriculture has removed data on the mistreatment of animals in research and entertainment.
Scientists and technology experts have responded with projects like DataRefuge.org. What’s the purpose of that?
There are good reasons to believe that federal scientific data are vulnerable. The DataRefuge project is one of the initiatives set up by scientists and archivists to locate, download and secure data that soon may not be available online. Projects like this are also important as a tool for mobilizing the scientific community.
What is the role of your organization, the Union of Concerned Scientists, in the movement?
The UCS was born in 1969 at MIT in Boston by a group of students and professors concerned about the growing weaponization of scientific research. Today we work on different themes: climate change, sustainable agriculture, and the relationship between science and democracy. We organize courses and networking sessions where scientists learn to communicate with the public, journalists and institutions.
We are in contact with scientists at federal agencies that provide valuable information on research policy management. With other organizations, we have promoted the event in Boston and the March for Science scheduled on April 22. We are also active in the organization of the People’s Climate March on April 29. These events mark the beginning of a new movement of scientists.
The Trump administration announced heavy budget cuts and chose Scott Pruitt to run the EPA. What will become of the agency?
As you know, Pruitt sued the EPA when he was Attorney General of Oklahoma. The many open legal proceedings indicate that Pruitt has no confidence in the EPA’s mission, established to protect public health and the environment. The cuts announced will have a huge impact on the operational capacity of the agency that’s supposed to clean up polluted sites and safeguard air and water quality. Marginalized communities living next to chemical plants or other polluted areas will especially suffer. And so will the people of Flint, Michigan, which still does not have drinking water and is awaiting the intervention of the EPA.
Trump has promised to sink the Paris climate agreement. But we know it would take years for the U.S. to formally withdraw from the agreement.
That’s true, it would be a long process. In addition, Trump’s position goes against the local level. Several U.S. states, such as California, and many large cities accept the reality of climate change and are working to mitigate the impact of rising sea levels and extreme weather events. Many private companies are also moving in this direction. Whether Trump likes it or not, in these cases the train of emission reductions has left the station and he can’t stop it.
Several posts in the U.S. government are still empty. What are the most important for the scientific community?
We look forward to seeing who will work with Rick Perry at the Department of Energy. Perry has proven not to have strong competence in the field of energy policies, and in the past has sided with the oil and gas industry. The members of his team will have an important role in the energy choices of the country. In addition, Trump has yet to appoint a scientific adviser. This figure, and their staff, update the president on relevant developments in research and communicate the overall focus of the scientific community. Moreover, this person should also protect scientific integrity at the federal level. What can we say? I hope Trump chooses someone who will act for the best.
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