Author: Ben Isaacoff
Editors: Irene Park, Ada Hagan, and Scott Barolo
President Donald J. Trump is wildly inconsistent on many issues. Under different circumstances, it might be amusing how often he contradicts himself. But one issue he has unfortunately been very consistent about is a dismissal of science and outright attacks on the scientific enterprise. The Trump campaign, his transition and appointees, and now his nascent administration, have deeply scared many of us who care about science.
Trump’s War on Science
Trump and his administration are unleashing a barrage of horrifying comments and actions that undercut science. For example, he has famously called climate change a hoax, at times insinuating that it’s merely a ploy invented by the Chinese. His administration purged all mention of climate change from the White House website and has issued gag orders to several government agencies working on science and health issues. Scott Pruitt, Trump’s appointed head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who spent much of career trying to protect polluters through litigation against the very same agency he was chosen to lead, has recently contradicted a 158-year-old scientific consensus that carbon dioxide (CO2) is the primary contributor to the Earth’s greenhouse effect. Even as president, Trump has continued to flirt with linking vaccines to autism.
Not only is the administration denying scientific facts, it has insinuated that objective facts and research are not necessary. Counselor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, famously used the phrase “alternative facts” to defend a lie (about a measurement) from press secretary Sean Spicer. Mick Mulvaney, the director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, publicly wrote: “… what might be the best question: do we really need government funded research at all?” This alarming sentiment is reflected in the White House’s budget proposal, which calls for massive cuts to research funding likely to cause “a seismic disruption in medical and science research.”
In addition, the pending travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries will be especially harmful to science in the U.S. The research enterprise in the U.S. relies on a diverse workforce with many immigrants and increasingly on international connections and collaborations. The travel ban, which is currently blocked by orders from two federal judges, will disrupt this system.
Sadly, this long list of outrages is only a drop in the bucket of what we can accurately call Trump’s war on science.
Why the Scientific Community Is Resisting
Despite the bleakness, the scientific community has not been silent or passive. There has been widespread resistance and calls to action throughout our community. Perhaps more so than at any other point in history (though certainly not for the first time), scientists are mobilizing to resist the threats that the Trump administration poses. These threats will hinder our ability to work in this country, such as potentially cutting 3,000 jobs at the EPA, and with international colleagues. As Dr. Katie Mack put it:
In the scientific community, there is a “widespread and long-held view among many researchers that they should be quiet and let their data speak for itself”: a view that science is and should be apolitical. Some even argue that the political engagement “will only cement the divide” between scientists and critics.
But that is a harmful myth. The truth, as MiSciWriters’ own Jimmy Brancho recently reminded us, is that science was never apolitical. Therefore, I don’t find debates of scientific credibility versus political engagement to be particularly helpful or valid.
I’m not suggesting that scientists have nothing to lose by being politically active, but instead, I’d rather ask my fellow scientists: why are you a scientist, and does being politically engaged support those reasons? My own answer is twofold. Firstly, I became a scientist because I wanted to make the world a better place, being politically engaged absolutely supports that. Secondly, I chose my scientific path from a deep yearning to understand the nature of the universe. By resisting an administration that disregards and discredits that understanding, I defend my ability, and that of my colleagues, to continue conducting scientific research.
#Resistance on Social Media
Although the Resistance movement is multifaceted and is not just from the scientific community, in this blog post I’d like to focus on scientists’ engagement on social media, the main space where scientists are mobilizing and speaking out.
Social media is a powerful tool for action (though activists should carefully consider their strategies), especially since more and more people are getting news on different social media sites. Social media can function (though it doesn’t always) as a tool for amplifying important signals above the background noise—helping citizens focus on certain issues. For example, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was a social media movement that raised $115 million for ALS research. When the movement went viral in the summer of 2014 (approximately 2.4 million Ice Bucket Challenge videos were shared on Facebook), the ALS association saw a 146% increase in Twitter followers and an 849% increase in Facebook likes.
Similarly, in my view, the most important function of social media for political action is highlighting new opportunities to act. The massively successful Women’s March initially was organized on Facebook. Likewise, scientists have come together through social media to organize the next massive protest against the Trump administration. The March for Science has been controversial, but it is gaining momentum: the “March for Science” Facebook page has almost 850,000 members. Whether the actual turnout is a thousand or a million, it is a testament the power of the #Resistance on social media.
The social media #Resistance is being carried out by diverse members of the scientific community. There are well-known examples like the rogue national park Twitter accounts tweeting facts about climate change or the size of certain crowds, instead of remaining silent as they were ordered to. There are the high-profile scientists speaking out on social media, like Katie Mack (cited above) or Neil deGrasse Tyson. There are the scientists who have been inspired by the #Resistance to run for elected office and are working hard to leverage social media for their campaigns and for their organizations.
Perhaps even more important than high-visibility members of the scientific community speaking out is the multitude of ordinary scientists who don’t have such a big group of followers. Together the ordinary scientists possess a huge voice, a huge following, and most importantly a massive capacity to analyze, comment, and act. For those of us not in positions of power, there wasn’t previously a platform for scientists to speak out on politics. Social media is now that platform.
I hope that you choose to join us, by connecting with me and countless others in the #Resistance. I have made it a daily goal to engage and connect with the #Resistance, and every time I do I find new people who inspire me with their thoughtful insights and impressive actions and I’m sure you will as well.
In the words of the March For Science organizers: “Staying silent is a luxury that we can no longer afford. We must stand together and support science…. we must take science out of the labs and journals and share it with the world.”
If you are a scientist, or if you value science, I hope you will speak up and join us in the #Resistance.
About the author
Ben Isaacoff is an Applied Physics PhD student at the University of Michigan. He leads an academic double life, with two deeply intertwined, but traditionally very separate pursuits. On one hand, as a scientist he’s working towards his PhD and producing original research in the field of nanophotonics, which for him basically means shooting lasers at tiny pieces of metal. On the other hand, he’s a student and advocate of Science and Technology Public Policy. When he’s not at his second home, The Chemistry Building, you might find him at the gym or out on one of Ann Arbor’s beautiful running trails. You can connect with Ben on Twitter (@bpisaacoff) or find more information on his website (https://sites.google.com/site/bpisaacoff/).
Read more by Ben here.