Defending Science in the Age of Trump

By Dr. Kevork Abazajian

Dr. Abazajian is an Associate Professor of Physics & Astronomy at the University of California, Irvine and 314 Action's CA State Coordinator. 

Dr. Abazajian is an Associate Professor of Physics & Astronomy at the University of California, Irvine and 314 Action's CA State Coordinator. 

I recently got to participate in a panel with former New York Times Science Editor Cornelia Dean. The panel was on “Talking About Science in the Age of Trump,” and it was organized by members of my neighborhood community. Ms. Dean has written two books relevant to scientists wanting to take action to defend science as well as the federal support of science. One is aimed for helping scientists communicate with the public directly and via journalists, entitled Am I Making Myself Clear? Her follow-up and most recent book is aimed toward the public to understand how science progresses and is communicated via the filter of the media, entitled Making Sense of Science. I highly recommend both. This post is based on what I spoke about on this panel.

In the particle physics and cosmology community, we have recently heard from the federal administrators at the Department of Energy about implementation of the 2018 Fiscal Year budget.  Even though the Trump Administration’s President’s Budget Request (PBR) was labeled “dead on arrival” to Congress by Republican Senators, the PBR is the basis for planning federal expenditures by federal agencies in  the continuing resolution situation in which we perennially find ourselves. Since the PBR contains draconian cuts to federally sponsored scientific research, it is the basis for federal agencies’ planning of expenditures come October 1.

What this means to my field of cosmology and high energy physics is a cut to the National Science Foundation (NSF) by about 11%, and the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science by about 17%. Since there are infrastructure and facilities obligations that must be met, these cuts can only be quickly placed on “soft” aspects of the budget, which are individual investigator grants and personnel. Planned under preparing for the PBR are 47% cuts in all DOE graduate student support and 20% cut to postdoctoral positions, translating to hundreds of scientists cut from funded programs. Also planned are ~25% cuts to workforces at DOE national laboratories, with losses of 700 positions at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory alone. Meeting these cuts requires extended shutdowns of the Fermilab accelerator complex. The National Institutes of Health is presumably also planning to cut spending at the range of 18% to 24% proposed in the PBR.

Even if these cuts are short lived, the impact of these reductions of workforce will severely harm American scientific research for at least a generation. A leader in the field of particle physics, Dr. Nima Arkani-Hamed of the Institute for Advanced study points out that this retreat from leadership in physics has been a long process, starting with the halt of the Superconducting Supercollider in the 1990’s, but this relegation of leadership is practically cemented. The enactment of the PBR is a new, unprecedented level of divestment from American research leadership.

This ties directly into what Ms. Dean writes in her most recent book, “as the federal government starts to step back as a backer of scientific research, the profit motive increasingly determines what is studied, how studies are designed—and whose findings become widely known and whose results are buried. All of these trends worsen in a Trump presidency.” She writes that this stems from a world “in which researchers gather data; politicians, business executives, or activists spin it; journalists misinterpret or hype it, and the rest of us just don’t get it. Whoever has the most money, the juiciest allegation, or the most outrageous claim speaks with the loudest voice. The internet, newspapers, the airwaves, the public discourse are all too often brimming with junk science, corrupt science, pseudoscience, and nonscience.”

This course must be corrected. “Two groups of people could help us separate fact from hype: researchers and the journalists who report on their work. But the culture of science still inveighs against researchers’ participation in public debates. With rare exceptions, scientists and engineers are absent from the nation’s legislatures, city councils, or other elective offices. Their training tells them to stay out of the public eye even when they have much to say that could inform public debates. In effect, they turn the microphones over to those who are unqualified to speak. Though I keep hearing that this institutional reserve is cracking, I do not believe it has cracked enough [emphasis mine].” Clearly, this is where 314 Action’s primary mission steps in.

As scientists, we must defend and promote the value of the scientific method. Science has much to offer policymakers and lawmakers. Science is arguably the only robust method humans have in predicting the future. This is a strong, far reaching claim, but is true. Policies based on scientific evidence are more likely to be successful.

Physicist, former Congressman, and President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Rush Holt wrote an Op-Ed in Science Magazine after the November election, writing “there is now important work to do ensuring that all citizenry, including the president, understand the powerful benefits of science and that decisions made with scientific input are more likely to succeed. The desire to drive economic progress and thereby improve people’s lives cannot come about without advancing science, technology, innovation, and an education system that prepares a capable workforce. Investment in scientific research boosts the economy, produces a larger, highly educated and talented workforce.” In a 2007 report from the National Academy of Science on the looming collapse of scientific leadership in America, entitled Rising Above the Gathering Storm, they write: “Economic studies conducted even before the information-technology revolution have shown that as much as 85% of measured growth in US income per capita was due to technological change.”

It is now clear that scientists must take a broader role in the public arena. The sciences have typically become so specialized and internally specialized that scientists often value nothing outside their specific field. Scientific specialties become cultures within themselves where researchers think that there is little of value outside of that specialization. Engaging with policymakers is viewed as “political” — sullying or dirtying their scientific “purity.” This is an abdication of social responsibility.

With our federal, as well as some state and local policy going so far off the rails, scientists are awakening to this responsibility. 314 Action has had 5,000 people with STEM backgrounds sign up to train to run for elected office. In addition, 314 Action is bridging the divide between scientists, journalists, policy makers and the public. Join the effort.


I would like to thank Judy Kaufman, member of California 45th, for putting together this event.

Climate Change Denial: the Lysenkoism of the present-day Republican Party

Dr. Kevork N. Abazajian      is an associate professor and member of the Executive Board of the Center for Cosmology at the Department of Physics and Astronomy of the University of California, Irvine

Dr. Kevork N. Abazajian      is an associate professor and member of the Executive Board of the Center for Cosmology at the Department of Physics and Astronomy of the University of California, Irvine

By: Dr. Kevork N. Abazajian

Recently, the House Science Committee held a hearing on climate change that stacked the deck of testimony at the hearing to be 3 to 1 climate change deniers, while climate scientists at large are 97% to >99% in agreement that anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions are leading to a warming planet. The only scientist present that represented the overwhelming conclusion of the scientific community was Prof. Michael Mann, of Pennsylvania State University (as well as an Advising Board Member of 314 Action). 

The controlling Republican Party Congressmembers stacked the hearing in such an unrepresentative way in order to push their own political interest above that found from proper scientific methodology. Prof. Mann appropriately referenced what the leading Congressmen were doing with their science denialism as akin Stalinism. Why is that? For nearly forty years, Soviet political leaders supported a theory of evolution called Lysenkoism, which was based on the long discredited Lamarckian evolution. It was the basis of state-planned agricultural policy that led to devastating results, resulting in famines. Why would this happen and why would it take so long for policy change when confronted with failing policy? Lysenkoism was a favorite theory of Stalin himself, with the Soviet propaganda machine presenting Trofim Lysenko as a home-grown genius going against the overwhelming consensus of scientists outside of Soviet influence. The policy based on the debunked ideology lead to not only widespread famine, but the execution arrest, imprisonment and/or firing of about 3,000 mainstream biologists in the Soviet Union. Fortunately, we are not yet at that point in America, but House Science Committee Chair Lamar Smith has harassed and subpoenaed government and university scientists that are in the mainstream due to their work.

The charge of Stalinesque behavior by the GOP Congressmen by Prof. Mann was rebutted four times by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, turning it on to climate scientists in consensus as being Stalinesque in a kind of childish “I know you are but what am I?” For those aware of the history, it is clear why the politicians are worthy of the label. Lysenkoism is metaphorically used “to describe the manipulation or distortion of the scientific process as a way to reach a predetermined conclusion as dictated by an ideological bias, often related to social or political objectives.” By rejecting the overwhelming scientific consensus in favor of a clear party-driven ideology, the Republican Congressmen are playing the role of Lysenkoists in the present day. The fact that human carbon dioxide emissions are the prime cause of climate change are as certain in science as whether you will fall if you jump off a cliff. Detrimental environmental impacts are happening even now. More dire environmental and social impacts are certain if carbon dioxide emissions continue on a business as usual path.

House Science Committee members Representatives Lamar Smith, Dana Rohrabacher and Steve Knight are targeted by 314 Action’s Under The Scope program for good reason. Lamar Smith has once railed against environmentalists nd the media for buying the ‘climate-change religion.’” Dana Rohrabacher has called climate change “a total fraud,” and Steve Knight has said “California has embarked on a rash mission to curtail global warming.” Their motivations are clear, including leading campaign support from the oil and gas industry, as well as nationalistic, anti-globalization sentiment.

The reason why these House Science Committee members are so detached from the science is that they are simply non-scientists who are particularly uninterested in learning what science does and what it can provide. Most importantly, science provides a methodology and mechanism to make robust predictions. The leading Republican members of the House Science Committee are instead lawyers, whose method of determining the “truth” is what one can be persuaded to believe by a series of arguments. They view climate scientists as just persuaded by one set of arguments, and in a “cabal” to squash dissent, while their experience as trial lawyers makes them view themselves as just as qualified to convince people what they purport to be just as valid: a view that denies the basic conclusions of climate scientists.

The difference of course is that the ideas that the Congressional denialists hold have actually been thoroughly tested by data, models and simulations. The science is not simply rhetoric. The numbers reveal that ongoing climate change is caused by human carbon dioxide emissions by a factor of 10,000 to 1 against that it is caused by natural variations. The implications of continuing carbon-based energy policy causing global climate change will not only be isolated to America. Global agricultural stresses from climate change will likely lead to greater global food insecurity, and will potentially displace hundreds of millions of people globally due to sea level rise, including about 20 million Americans.

The leading Republican Science Committee members and many other anti-science denialists miss one basic element of the scientific method when they purport that science is simply another form of rhetorical argument that maintains a power-based, dissention-killing consensus: Science provides a structure very willing to change its paradigms when confronted with new evidence and more predictive theories. Convincing, science-based dissension is rewarded, not suppressed. Albert Einstein is not famous for proving Isaac Newton right, he is famous for proving Isaac Newton wrong!

The kinds of dangerous statements coming out of the House Science Committee—in hearings 314 Action supporters appropriately tag as an #antisciencecircus—shows exactly why America needs more actual scientists and supporters of science in Congress and on that very Committee: we need men and women that understand the difference between the nuances of science versus brute argumentation. Find and support candidates that are scientists or strongly pro-science who will bring science to the table in Congress and other elected positions, and certainly support 314 Action’s efforts to unseat those unqualified Congressmen specifically Under the Scope.

DJT’s Proposed Budget is Bad for Science and Bad for America

By: Jamie Tijerina, with Kevin Davis and Eddie Isaacs

The current president of the US ran for office on a promise to “Make America Great Again.” He claimed that he would bring back jobs and put people back to work.

But his budget proposal tells a different story. Words are cheap, and while we know that the president has said many unsavory things over the years, the truth is that ultimately, actions speak louder than words.

The president’s proposed budget includes an increase in military spending of 10%, while also cutting funding to the EPA by 31%, and cutting funding to the NIH by 20% (about $6 billion). According to the New York Times, cuts to the EPA alone could cost as many as 3,200 people their jobs. NIH funding cuts could result in large numbers of labs shutting down and jobs being lost across the country. During his inauguration speech, DJT said he would “bring back our jobs”— taking away 3,200 jobs at the EPA and threatening even more jobs elsewhere is a broken promise.

Even more recently, there has been an immediate call by the president to cut NIH’s budget by an additional $1.2 billion. Other smaller independent agencies, including the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting also find themselves on the chopping block. Meanwhile, Republicans estimate that the proposed wall along the US-Mexico border could cost $20 billion.

As it stands, many scientists and scientists in training, especially those who remain in academia, work long hours, struggling to make ends meet in increasingly expensive markets and struggling to find funding for their important research. They are often paid below the market rate for their work based on hours and education levels. This was highlighted by the proposed change to overtime pay rule that would have raised the threshold from $23,660 to $47,476-- many researchers’ wages were not enough to reach the new threshold to remain exempt.

Outside of the scientific community, these hardships are not as widely known, but the effects reverberate far beyond. Prior to Trump’s election, the scientific community had been suffering consequences arising from inadequate funding stemming from the time of the Great Recession. Stalled research, lost jobs, and the slow exodus of a generation of great minds resulting from a lack of employment opportunities. Cutting funding to science and the arts as indicated in the proposed budget embodies the acceptance of American anti-intellectualism.

Photo courtesy of www.bioedge.org

Photo courtesy of www.bioedge.org

Inadequately funding scientific research is dangerous for our country’s future. Federally funded science has resulted in important life-saving advances in the treatment of HIV/AIDS, various forms of cancer, and many other conditions. It has enabled us to respond to the emergence of viruses such as Zika and Ebola. It has taught us more about our world’s climate and ways that we as individuals can protect our environment. It has allowed us to see beyond Earth, to land on the moon and even Mars. To take away funding would ensure that the United States will fall behind in scientific innovation and would leave us vulnerable to disease, natural disaster, and even biological attacks by foreign powers.

Scientific research and innovation are a significant part of what makes America great. Actions speak louder than words, and our proposed budget should reflect the “greatness” that the president promised when he ran for office. That means it should reflect a respect for culture, education, scientific innovation and research, and artistic enrichment. If we increase our military spending by siphoning taxpayer funds toward the construction of a wall to keep people out, and away from science, the arts, the pursuit of knowledge, and agencies that contribute to our American culture of innovation, what will be left for our military to protect?

Criminalizing Immigrants and the Consequences of Mass Deportation

Dr. Kevork N. Abazajian        is an associate professor and member of the Executive Board of the Center for Cosmology at the Department of Physics and Astronomy of the University of California, Irvine

Dr. Kevork N. Abazajian        is an associate professor and member of the Executive Board of the Center for Cosmology at the Department of Physics and Astronomy of the University of California, Irvine

By Dr. Kevork N Abazajian

Science has much to provide policy makers regarding how to be the most effective in policy design and implementation. The social sciences, in particular, are relevant to many social policies. For example, at the University of California, Irvine, the Department of Criminology, Law and Society hosts the Center for Evidence-Based Corrections, which has the goal of “Putting science before politics to improve state correctional practices… [and] to provide [research] that helps corrections officials make policy decisions based on scientific evidence.”

The recent political demonization and framing of undocumented immigrants as criminals during the presidential campaign has been followed by actions by immigration enforcement. Unlike the previous administration’s focus on undocumented high-level felons for deportation, there are now home raids of undocumented individuals that have no criminal record. As New York Magazine reported, “Late last month, President Trump signed an executive order expanding the classifications for prioritized deportation to such a point that every undocumented immigrant in the country could be targeted.”

In this post, I want to address how these actions are counterproductive on two levels: they fail to make Americans safe on the large scale, and, more significantly, they destroy families..

A man is arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents Feb. 7 during a targeted enforcement operation. (Charles Reed/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via AP)

A man is arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents Feb. 7 during a targeted enforcement operation. (Charles Reed/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via AP)

On a broader scale,several scholars* in the social science community have done extensive research on the link between immigration and crime and have routinely found that immigrants are less prone to crime than are native-born Americans and that immigrant communities have lower crime rates than communities with fewer immigrants. A panel of immigration and crime scholars recently summarized these conclusions in an article for The Conversation which also appeared in Scientific American:

“For the last decade, we have been studying how immigration to an area impacts crime. Across our studies, one finding remains clear: Cities and neighborhoods with greater concentrations of immigrants have lower rates of crime and violence, all else being equal… We conducted a meta-analysis, meaning we systematically evaluated available research on the immigration-crime relationship in neighborhoods, cities and metropolitan areas across the U.S. We examined findings from more than 50 studies published between 1994 and 2014… Our analysis of the literature reveals that immigration has a weak crime-suppressing effect. In other words, more immigration equals less crime… The upshot? We find no evidence to indicate that immigration leads to more crime and it may, in fact, suppress it. [emphasis mine]”

That’s the societal-scale implication: Targeting immigrants to reduce crime is a misled policy that is not borne by the scientific evidence.

Then there are the horrifying, human-scale implications to deportation of peaceful, contributing members of our society. There has been an increase in Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and deportations that the President has said are in line with keeping his campaign promise to deport all undocumented immigrants. These detainments and deportations include targeting peaceful and otherwise law-abiding people. The story of Guadalupe Garcia is particularly terrifying: she arrived in the U.S. as a child more than 20 years ago, has since had a family of her own, only to be deported away from them due to the new federal policies. Guadalupe Garcia’s deportation helps no one. There is now a state of fear in immigrant communities across America.

In the U.S. today, there are more than 9 million children whose parents are undocumented immigrants, and 16.6 million families with mixed status. Disrupting families is a human rights issue that clearly leads to immense emotional and behavioral harm, as well as severe negative economic impacts. A report by the Center for American Progress finds:

  • Deportations leave many U.S.-citizen children with unauthorized parents in foster care, “often for no other reason than the undocumented status of a parent,” at a cost of nearly $26,000 per year for each child.

  • Deportations “create a large number of single mothers struggling to make ends meet” after the deportations of their husbands.

  • “Children and their parents live in constant fear of separation” because they know deportations are occurring and fear that they could be next.

  • “Because of fears of deportation, children routinely conflate the police with immigration officials…These children—who are U.S. citizens—grow up afraid of the police.”

There are clear harmful impacts of a draconian deportation policy: there are impacts on the societal level, where immigrant communities are less crime prone, and on the personal level, where reports offer gut wrenching accounts of family disruption for no one’s benefit. Social scientists and community advocates need to be at the table to formulate policy that benefits our communities instead of harming them.



 

* Note of disclosure: Prof. Charis Kubrin, who is one of the authors of this piece, is also my spouse.

Protecting Americans: Travel Bans and the ACA

Dr. Kevork N. Abazajian is an associate professor and member of the Executive Board of the Center for Cosmology at the Department of Physics and Astronomy of the University of California, Irvine

Dr. Kevork N. Abazajian is an associate professor and member of the Executive Board of the Center for Cosmology at the Department of Physics and Astronomy of the University of California, Irvine

BY DR. KEVORK ABAZAJIAN

Science has much to contribute to the formation of public policy that benefits us all. We have seen this in everything from regulations maintaining safe drinking water to ones that allow for safe aviation.

As scientists interested in effective policy, it is particularly disheartening to see the implementation of the ban on travel of nationals from seven Muslim-majority nations as a purported way to keep Americans safe. Since September 11, 2001, there have been 94 people killed in America due to jihadist terrorism. The attackers were all either American citizens or legal residents. Over half of the murders were victims of the Orlando night club massacre, where forty-nine people were killed at the hands of a citizen born in Long Island. None were committed by refugees. Such a ban, which is arguably based on racism and exclusion, clearly misses the mark in trying to protect Americans.

Of course, anything above zero in terrorist acts is unacceptable. The number of Americans killed by terrorist acts, about 6 per year, has to be put in context, however. The number of Americans killed by gun violence annually is nearly 12,000. Seven children and teens are killed by gun violence every day. The number of Americans killed in automobile accidents tops 35,000. Both gun laws and car safety policy cause these rates to be reduced. Certainly, the evidence shows that more can be done in those directions given the enormous risks involved.

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Meanwhile, there is a concerted effort now by Congress and the Trump administration to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA or Obamacare). The outright repeal would force 20 million or more Americans to lose insurance coverage. Professors of Public Health who have studied the effect of insurance rates have found that one life is saved per 455 people insured per year. The repeal of ACA therefore translates to the deaths of over 43,000 Americans per year. The Public Health professors are experts, and there has been no substantive counter-analysis of this potential impact. Even if the analysis inaccurate by a factor of ten, the impact on the health and lives of Americans from the repeal of ACA is immense, leading to the preventable deaths of thousands of Americans per year.

As a society, we have limited resources and we need to put them where they are most effective. Science helps guide us to effective policies that can have the greatest impact, and this entails having more representation by those that understand scientific, evidence-based policies.