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Defending Science and Scientific Integrity in the Age of Trump

Robert FrederickMar 9, 2017

It's pretty clear that the President of the United States resists facts.

To address that, the Union of Concerned Scientists held a panel titled "Defending Science and Scientific Integrity in the Age of Trump" at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science this past month. 

The panelists were:

  • Lewis Branscomb, University of California, San Diego
  • John Holdren, former director, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
  • Jane Lubchenco, Oregon State University
  • Amy Luers, Skoll Global Threats Fund
  • Gretchen Goldman, Union of Concerned Scientists
  • Andrew Rosenberg, Union of Concerned Scientists (moderator)

Based on a recording of the panel's talk, which lasted 75 minutes, I made a podcast that highlights the panelists' concerns and recommendations, as well as what the panelists hope is accomplished by the upcoming March for Science, which American Scientist's publisher, Sigma Xi, is a partner. Listen, or read a transcript below, or you can view the whole session here.

(Full transcript below)

ROBERT FREDERICK: It’s pretty clear that the President of the United States resists facts.


UNIDENTIFIED VOICE [GRETCHEN GOLDMAN]: The public is going to suffer if the politicization of science is normalized. We cannot allow that to happen. If science is not able to inform policy decisions, we will all lose.

ROBERT FREDERICK: On this episode of the American Scientist podcast, “Defending Science and Scientific Integrity in the Age of Trump.” I’m Robert Frederick.

[music ends]

At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science this past month, the Union of Concerned Scientists invited a panel of speakers to talk about how to address the uncertainty about science’s role in our federal government and the consequences of political interference.

Lewis Branscomb was one of the five panelists. Now a visiting scholar at the University of California, San Diego, Branscomb has advised four presidents. But having an audience with an overflowing, standing-room-only group of scientists, journalists, and conference participants seemed to catch him off guard.

LEWIS BRANSCOMB: This community needs to get its ener— The energy is right here in this room. Look at it! We've never had a meeting like this!

ROBERT FREDERICK: Hundreds were in the room; many more in an overflow room, and thousands more viewed online—watching the session from Sweden, New Zealand, Nicaragua, South Africa—responding in real time on Facebook to some searing rhetoric from the panel, including from Branscomb.

LEWIS BRANSCOMB: You'll find a great many of the leading Republicans are very nervous about where all this is going to lead. If there's a chance of having strong friends anywhere in the conservative community, then don't put them in the pot with everything else we plan to cook.

ROBERT FREDERICK: What's the reason for stoking the cooking fire in the first place? Gretchen Goldman is the research director for the Union of Concerned Scientists' Center for Science and Democracy.

GRETCHEN GOLDMAN: So we've come a long way in scientific integrity. Under the George W. Bush administration, we saw science politicized like never before. But now, the government has many safeguards in place to protect scientific integrity and to protect scientists from the politicization of their work. Scientists in our government now have rights to communicate, and rights to conduct their research free of political interference. We can’t afford to roll back these gains. But now, these safeguards are under threat.

The public is going to suffer if the politicization of science is normalized. We cannot allow that to happen. If science is not able to inform policy decisions, we will all lose.

ROBERT FREDERICK: Also at risk is the loss of funds for R&D—research and development—says John Holdren, former director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

JOHN HOLDREN: I'm particularly worried about R&D at the Department of Energy, where some may survive, but clean energy and energy efficiency are likely to be slashed. I'm worried of course about the EPA, and all the more after Mr. Pruitt's confirmation. I’m worried about the Food & Drug Administration and its regulatory authorities. I'm worried about the National Science Foundation, which, along with the NIH, is our biggest funder of fundamental research. And while maybe important programs at NIH will survive because they address the diseases of members of Congress and their families, the funding at the NSF is certainly even more at risk. We already knew that many members of Congress don't understand that basic research is the seed corn from which all future applied advances will come. Basic research has been under fire at the NSF for a long time, and that trend is, unfortunately likely to be accentuated. Other things at risk....

ROBERT FREDERICK: After enumerating many concerns, the panel then began to focus on what to do about it, or how to go about defending science and scientific integrity in the Age of Trump. Jane Lubchenco of Oregon State University is the former director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

JANE LUBCHENCO: For those of us who live in the academic world, we need to pay a little more attention to our structures and reward systems in academia, and change the culture of academia, so that it is more valued and rewarded for scientists to be engaged with society.

ROBERT FREDERICK: Lubchenco says the purpose of that engagement is to help the public understand what science does for them.

JANE LUBCHENCO: Part of the reason that we’re in the pickle that we are is that not enough people really appreciate and value science. And I think that’s partly on us to help fix.

We know that it's important. But not everybody else does. And it's not enough to just say "Trust me. I know." We need to do a better job—in multiple ways—of showing why it is relevant. Showing why it's important. Showing what it does for people.

So I think now is the time for a quantum leap into relevance.

ROBERT FREDERICK: The panel agreed that to make such a quantum leap certainly means more engagement with decisionmakers, particularly those in Congress.

GRETCHEN GOLDMAN: If ever there was a time for the scientific community to be engaged on policy, it is now.

ROBERT FREDERICK: Again, Gretchen Goldman of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

GRETCHEN GOLDMAN: We need to spot misinformation when we see it, when websites get deleted, other things —we need to call that out—and we need to hold decisionmakers accountable. And we need to support each other in the scientific community when our fellow scientists choose speak up, and especially if they become political targets themselves, as we’ve seen happen in the past.

ROBERT FREDERICK: But beyond restructuring academia to reward scientists to engage with society and showing people what science does for them, beyond engaging with decisionmakers and supporting fellow scientists, Lewis Branscomb says there's a need also to offer scientists, especially young scientists, new programs...

LEWIS BRANSCOMB: which people are trained for at least one year in the combination of how new companies are created, how innovations are done, protecting innovations or selling them—all of that needs to be stronger. And I believe if it were, it might not be that the White House would say “Wonderful, that's what we're going to do," but at least they might stop anti-doing it. And, if so, that would be real, better progress than what we are feared might happen. So this is an area in which I think the community could be more effective itself if it were institutionally structured in a collaborative mode, with the value to the public and to the country in mind.

ROBERT FREDERICK: It will also take thinking about how talk with non-scientists about science—talking differently, says Amy Luers. She's the director of the climate change program at the Skoll Global Threats Fund and says scientists principally should be listening and responding, not broadcasted facts, not even broadcasted strong science stories, but having conversations with non-scientists.

AMY LUERS: In the digital age, you know, where we have social media and filter bubbles of Facebook and Google, all voices get equal airtime, and therefore science voices and other expert voices get either drown out or filtered out, and just not even heard. And so as a result, we in the scientific community need to adjust our means of science communication and public engagement, where we move beyond broadcasting facts and even move beyond broadcasting really strong stories to joining conversations with our fellow citizens who are non-scientists, and looking for opportunities—creating opportunities—where they can start conversations with us.

ROBERT FREDERICK: That's because when it comes to persuading elected officials, says Andrew Rosenberg, constituents are more influential than scientists who are not also the elected official's constituents. Rosenberg, who moderated the panel, is the director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

ANDREW ROSENBERG: The constituent’s voice—to their elected representative in your state or in your district or in your city, is always much more powerful than somebody flying in from—no matter what their expertise is—and so use your power as a constituent and as a scientist.

ROBERT FREDERICK: So the more constituents—scientists or not—who are arguing from a position of science, the more power to persuade elected officials to use science in making policy decisions. In other words, whether your a scientist or not, says Gretchen Goldman...

GRETCHEN GOLDMAN: We need you. We now more than ever need non-scientists to help articulate science and its benefits and the tremendous role that it plays in making America already great. So I think that's going to be really important as we move forward.

ROBERT FREDERICK: The panel also praised the efforts of individual states in these United States of America and their support of science. They also were encouraged by stories of scientists interested in running for political office, and were optimistic given the strong international network of scientists about the opportunities to tap into the philanthropic community and private sectors to keep science projects going. But the panel stressed that the federal government is in the best position to enable scientific projects that address the entire nation.

GRETCHEN GOLDMAN: Under the administration we've seen so far, that...

ROBERT FREDERICK: Again, Gretchen Goldman.

GRETCHEN GOLDMAN: ...President Trump isn't going to respect science or respect scientists. Right out of the gate, we saw gag orders placed on federal agency communications, we saw halts on grants and contracts and hiring freezes, and we've seen scientific information start to disappear from government websites.

ROBERT FREDERICK: All of which helped to prompt a March for Science. Full disclosure: American Scientist's publisher, Sigma Xi, a non-partisan and non-political honor society, announced its partnership with and its support for the March for Science on February 3rd. The march itself takes place on April 22nd. Prior to that date, says Amy Luers of the Skoll Global Threats Fund....

AMY LUERS: Everybody find an opportunity to say to the general public, to your community why your marching. One opportunity would be to write an op-ed to your local newspaper and tell them this is why we're marching. I’m marching because I believe in science. I believe in facts. I believe in data to protect my children, to protect my community, and for the prosperity of our country. And I think if we can control that from the bottom up, then it will be a really important march.

ROBERT FREDERICK: That's because one narrative about the March for Science that's out there is that scientists are marching because they’re concerned about their funding drying up, says Lewis Branscomb.

LEWIS BRANSCOMB: A great many people think that scientists are sitting up there getting money to do something they enjoy doing that none of us understand and what they want is more money. Don’t let them think that’s what we want on April 22.

JANE LUBCHENCO: I'll just add one more suggestion to that, and that is to encourage people who aren't scientists to march as well...

ROBERT FREDERICK: Again, Jane Lubchenco

JANE LUBCHENCO: ...because this is a march for and about science. It's not a march of scientists. Write those op-eds, blog, tweet, letters to the editor, all those kinds of things, and have it be a celebration of science and focus on why science is important, not just assert that it is—why it is important to you—all those, I think, are key elements.

JOHN HOLDREN: Every scientist who is going to the march should bring two non-scientist citizens.

ROBERT FREDERICK: Again, John Holdren.

JOHN HOLDREN: And I think this should be true of the speeches from the podium as well, and particularly bring along citizens who at least in part are representative of individuals who have been helped by science, whose lives have been made better in important and easily communicated ways by science. I think that would go a long ways toward alleviating the danger that this is an elitist group isolated from the real needs of society.

ROBERT FREDERICK: In the end, panel moderator Andrew Rosenberg summed up the session this way.

ANDREW ROSENBERG: When you pair up a fact-less president with a post Citizens United Congress that is more and more in the grip of special interests, and a populace that is increasingly confused about what is true and what’s not and has lost confidence in the institutions that we’ve all relied on in our lives to help us sort out fact from fiction—so this is a unique threat—and I have to say I agree completely with Jane Lubchenco that scientists need to make a quantum leap into relevance to deal with that threat.


ROBERT FREDERICK: You've been listening to a podcast from American Scientist magazine, published by Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society. Visit us online at I’m Robert Frederick. Thanks for joining us.

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This post is published in From the Staff

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