On Monday, 37 top scientists signed a letter to US President-elect Donald Trump imploring him to keep the Iran nuclear deal intact. The pact, said the group — which includes Nobel laureates, various nuclear experts and the president of the Federation of American Scientists — is a “critical US strategic asset”.
While its list of signatories is impressive, the letter shouldn’t come as much of a surprise for those keeping a close watch on the scientific community’s response to Trump. For some time now, scientists from diverse areas — including climate, medicine, biology, physics and policy — have warned Trump about his potential approaches to scientific issues.
Given Trump’s often stunted and conspiratorial attitudes toward anything even vaguely approaching science, it should come as no surprise that most of these warnings are quite strongly worded. But scientists aren’t just schooling Trump on the usual politically-charged subjects, like climate change and energy. Their recommendations run the gamut, and they suggest that the scientific community as a whole is thinking very carefully about the place of science and scientific thinking in the Trump administration.
“Creating a strong and open culture of science begins at the top.”
In late November, more than 2300 members of the scientific community — including 22 Nobel Prize winners — sent a letter to Trump and the incoming Congress urging them to ensure that “science continues to play a strong role in protecting public health and well-being”.
“Federal agencies should be led by officials with demonstrated track records of respecting science as a critical component of decision making,” the letter read in part. (That does not appear to be going too well.) It also recommended that the new administration “should adhere to high standards of scientific integrity and independence in responding to current and emerging public health and environmental threats”.
“We urge you to decide if you want your Presidency to be defined by denial and disaster, or acceptance and action.”
Over 800 scientists and experts called on Trump to implement six key initiatives in the fight against climate change. The suggestions include reducing the United States’ dependence on fossil fuels, respecting the parameters of the Paris Climate Agreement and “publicly [acknowledging] that climate change is a real, human-caused, and urgent threat”. The letter was signed by Josh Willis, a NASA climate scientist, and Peter Frumhoff, the director of science and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, among others.
“We urge that you quickly appoint a science advisor with the title of Assistant to the President for Science and Technology who is a nationally respected leader.”
Cooperation and trust between the government and the scientific community will be put to the test during the Trump years (if it’s not destroyed entirely) and several prominent scientific groups have attempted to ensure their interests are properly represented.
“This senior level advisor can assist you in determining effective ways to use science and technology to address major national challenges,” 29 leaders from science organisations wrote on November 23. “If we are to maintain America’s global leadership, and respond to the economic and security challenges currently facing the nation, we must build on our strong history of federal support for innovation, entrepreneurship and science and technology.”
“The anti-knowledge and anti-science sentiments expressed repeatedly during the US presidential election threaten the very foundations of our society.”
Trump’s campaign wasn’t just an attack on science — it was a carefully targeted attack on women, immigrants, people of colour and the LGBTQ community. Members of these groups — who also happen to be scientists — drew attention to the dangers of this kind of ideology in a November statement.
“Many of us feel personally threatened by this divisive and destructive rhetoric and have turned to each other for understanding, strength, and a path forward,” the letter, signed by thousands of scientists, read. “Our work to overcome the longer-term degradation of the role science plays in society did not start with this election, but this election has re-ignited our efforts.”
On one hand, cajoling letters to prominent political leaders are common — Barack Obama has received plenty of his own — but according to Rush Holt, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Trump is different. “This election represented such a large change and threw such uncertainty onto the place of science in American government that we really had to reach out right away to the president-elect,” Holt told Scientific American.
The magazine suggests that today’s scientists are taking a more activism-oriented approach to the incoming administration. It’s an admittedly risky prospect given the public’s general distrust of scientists and their work; scientists, above all, are supposed to remain objective observers who trade in empirical evidence. If they’re seen as partisan, no matter how rationally they may arrive at these conclusions, there’s a possibility that trust may erode further. In this way, scientists aren’t dissimilar to journalists — each group is supposed to remain independent and politically neutral.
The problem with the Trump administration, however, is that its grandiose statements and outright lies go beyond the political. It’s not partisan to critique Trump’s irrational opinion on climate change — it’s the responsible and civic-minded thing to do. For scientists, who must often consider the societal implications of their work, speaking up and taking action to protect the integrity of their institutions has never been more important.