People, planet, and the path ahead
People hold signs as they listen to a group of scientists speak during a rally in conjunction with the American Geophysical Union's fall meeting in San Francisco, on Dec. 13, 2016. The rally sought to call attention to what scientists say are unwarranted attacks by the incoming Trump administration against climate science.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/File
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Scientists drawn into politics, in a bid to defend science

Values and ideals

Concern in the science community rose this week about possible Trump administration curbs on researchers. Responses range from defending facts to actually entering the political fray.

Facing a possible crackdown on free speech for researchers within government, American scientists appear ready to voice their concerns with an unusual degree of public activism. They’re planning a march, and some are seeking to mobilize their peers to run for office.

The sense of rising passion is rare in a community more known for labcoats and data crunching than for holding megaphones or slogan-emblazoned signs. But it comes for a clear-cut reason: They’re hearing a drumbeat of concern about the Trump administration – whether rooted in fearful headlines and Facebook posts or in actual words and actions of the administration itself.

And although scientists have spoken out in the past about perceived threats to their profession, some say there’s little precedent for the surge of activism that appears to have begun this week.

“I think you’re seeing scientists starting to say, ‘We need to insert ourselves in the conversation, because we need to have some semblance of a fact-based society,’ ” says Eric Holthaus, a climate journalist with degrees in meteorology and climate science.

In just a week, a “march for science” (date still uncertain) already has 250,000 followers on Twitter account @ScienceMarchDC. Not all the followers and marchers will be people with science PhDs, of course, but the number is an indicator of how the idea is resonating.

For some in the scientific community, just speaking out for scientist free speech is not enough. One group, 314Action, is planning a online seminar in March to educate scientists about running for political office. Almost 1,500 people had signed up to attend as of Thursday, according to Shaugnessy Naughton, the group’s president.

“The scientific community has generally considered science above politics, which of course it is,” she says. “But I think people need to realize that politicians aren’t above meddling in science, and I think that’s why we need to push back.”

Alarm but also confusion

The sense of alarm has been sown by several factors. Most notably, the new president and many in his transition team have a history of climate-change skepticism, and a roster of cabinet nominees have been equivocating on the subject. Then, in President Trump’s first week have come a flurry of administration actions, sometimes inaccurate media headlines about those actions, and social-media attention to “rogue” tweets (about climate) from within the National Park Service, that were subsequently deleted.

The crackdown many feared appeared to be happening right off the bat. In reality, that’s not quite the case. Orders to halt external communications at various federal agencies, including the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the decision to almost completely remove mentions of climate policy from the White House and US State Department websites, both appear to be fairly routine for a presidential transition.

But that has done little to alleviate the scientific community’s deeper concern that Mr. Trump and his administration have a penchant for “alternative facts” (in the phrase of his adviser Kellyanne Conway) rather than scientifically agreed ones.

For scientists, what’s galvanizing here doesn’t appear to be concern over specific policies, such as US participation in the 2015 UN agreement on climate change, which Trump opposed during his campaign.

Fighting over policies would, for many, bring them uncomfortably close to the political battlefield and jeopardize their scientific credibility. Instead, many in the scientific community believe they only have to amplify their traditional – and apolitical – societal role as the guardians and purveyors of truth and facts.

Trust at stake

Some want to go further, including running for political office. But for most, it seems, this newfound desire to speak out will involve going to the brink of traditional political activism, but no further. At a time when public trust in institutions, including science, is declining, speaking out against the White House while maintaining credibility will be a tough line to toe for many scientists.

This week, Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, claimed that the inauguration crowd was the largest in history, and the president ordered a probe into voter fraud during the 2016 election. Media and scientists quickly debunked the crowd size claim. And while voter fraud does occur in small numbers, several studies have shown it is not “very, very common” as Trump has suggested.

For scientists, people who “have devoted their entire life to finding out the truth and having rigorous debate over what the truth is,” the trend is disturbing, says Mr. Holthaus.

Yet marching in the streets – as scientists are now planning to do – is not something familiar to many in the STEM community (science, technology, engineering, and math).

For the general academic community – particularly tenured scientists who rarely interact with the federal government – a traditional aversion to activism may actually be an advantage now, says Jon Foley, executive director of the California Academy of Scientists.

“There’s a reluctance to jump into the political fray, but when we do, it’s so that truth shouldn’t be interfered with,” he adds. “I think we’re good at that, and I think people like that.”

For federal scientists, and academics who depend heavily on federal research dollars, the politicized terrain will be much harder to navigate for those who want to speak out. Some have already found innovative ways to do so. “Rogue” Twitter accounts have appeared this week for multiple federal agencies, though it’s not clear if all these accounts have been created by actual employees from the respective agencies.

Most appear to be keeping their heads down, however.

The sense of a chill on federal scientists became apparent to Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, when he began getting queries about reports that the incoming administration might cut NASA’s Earth science programs. It was not just the potential cuts; it was that NASA scientists themselves were apparently reluctant to comment in public.

“Many have been instructed to not be outspoken, and stick to facts,” he wrote in an email to the Monitor, adding that he sees a precedent for the current situation in the administration of George W. Bush, when scientists faced an atmosphere of censorship.

'That's the beauty of democracy'

Actually getting involved in politics would constitute pushing too hard for some scientists, turning what they think should be a simple appeal for facts into a political confrontation.

Mixing personal politics with scientific messaging “might end up watering down your message and credibility,” says Dr. Foley.

But as scientists speak up for true reporting on their fields, he says, the apparent tune of the new administration may change. “That’s the beauty of democracy,” he continues. “We all get a say, and scientists are going to get their say too.”