Science Is Collateral Damage Across the Trump Administration
The White House last week ordered hospitals to stop sending coronavirus-related data to a publicly available database at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, prompting confusion and concern among public health professionals. The administration simultaneously announced plans to set up a new system that officials say will also be open and searchable and help agencies more nimbly direct resources where they’re most needed. Yet scientists detected in the chaos evidence of a more worrisome pattern.
Unrelated to the White House’s treatment of Covid-19 data (but simultaneously having everything to do with it), a group of scientists late last week reissued a 2018 letter decrying the Trump administration’s attitude toward science.
It was a sequel to an earlier letter originally published in September 2016, in response to then-candidate Trump’s promise to exit the Paris climate agreement once elected. While the original document, signed by 378 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, focused on climate change, two subsequent versions broadened its scope, condemning “the dismissal of scientific evidence in policy formulation [that] has affected wide areas of the social, biological, environmental and physical sciences.”
To date, the open letter from Scientists for Science-Based Policy has been signed by more than 1,200 scientists, including Diana Liverman, director of the School of Geography, Development and Environment at the University of Arizona, who was elected to the 160-year-old NAS this past April. “Climate science is respected so much more by governments in other countries—not all, of course,” she says. “It does not mean these countries do more to act on climate change, or have the same solutions, but they do not dispute the science.”
Scientists and politicians are different in many ways, of course. For instance, scientists are philosophically opposed to having 100% confidence in anything, whereas many politicians proclaim 100% confidence in their policies. Politicians say they get their authority from voters. Scientists say they get their authority from evidence and logic.
“I’m not a joiner,” says Charles Manski, a Northwestern University public-policy economist and one of the co-authors of the broader version of the letter. “We all get requests to sign all kinds of things.” But ongoing challenges to public-serving institutions, public-serving individuals and respect for facts gradually changed his mind.
Once the coronavirus pandemic began, he witnessed the administration’s reluctance to perform simple functions, such as bringing together epidemiologists, economists and educators to plan ways to mitigate the disease’s overall toll. “In normal times, that would be a classic role of the federal government, to bring these people together,” he says.
The nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists maintains a database of White House and Congressional “attacks on science,” cataloging what it says are moves to dismantle health and safety protections, neglect evidence and erode scientists’ professional integrity. “The White House is playing a shell game—moving the numbers around, hiding information and making it really difficult for anybody to get a handle on the scope and magnitude of the problem,” says Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS.
So, despite their nature as authority-doubting, evidence-demanding experts, scientists occasionally find themselves locking arms to join a political cause in the name of simply being able to do their jobs.
That times are tough and the country is divided isn’t an excuse for intellectual retrenchment, says Ben Santer, a climate researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who helped organize the scientists' letter. Political tension “doesn’t absolve us from the responsibility as scientists and as citizens of this country to try and hold the government accountable and to not remain silent,” he says. “So many in government have been willing to embrace magical thinking and say, ‘Well, this will magically all go away, and everything will be fine.’”
Eric Roston writes the Climate Report newsletter about the impact of global warming.
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