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.