The COVID-19 pandemic sparked an explosion of research, breakthroughs, and collaboration within the scientific community. However, now that the clinical trials have…
How ecologists and climate scientists can overcome despair and constructively respond to the installation of a climate denier as US president. What is a scientist’s role/best use of his/her time in these times?
By John P. Rafferty
Associate Editor of Earth and Life Sciences, Encyclopaedia Britannica
Four weeks into the Trump Era, and we now have an idea of what we are in for. With respect to science, President Donald Trump ran his campaign on a promise to bring back manufacturing jobs and “drain the swamp” of special interests. Since his inauguration he has moved to install a number of pro-business, pro-petroleum, and anti-intellectual cabinet members.
It is no understatement to suggest that with the appointment these cabinet officials that U.S. scientists of all stripes could see significant challenges to their funding, threats to the foundations of their disciplines, and possibly unforeseen dangers to their professional reputations over the next four years.
The election of a foe of climate and vaccine research to the U.S presidency, along with the installation of those of similar thinking to posts at the highest levels of various federal agencies, does not bode well for doing good science—specifically the collection of good climatological, ecological, and energy research in government laboratories. If you were scientifically trained in these disciplines, you have probably experienced a range of emotions that cycle between disbelief, despair, outrage, and general numbness as executive orders tumble out of the White House and questionable personnel choices rise to lead the departments of Education, State, Environmental Protection, and elsewhere.
Although I am not a federal employee, my work relies, in large part, on information provided by the U.S. government, the
largest data collector in the world. When the ability of the government to do good, objective science is impaired by practices and protocols more rooted in political ideology than in the scientific method, science itself is impaired. The threatened political review of papers produced by scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) before they can be disseminated to the public is one example that has surfaced since the inauguration. Bills introduced to make deep cuts into science funding, as well as to dismantle the EPA and the Department of Education—which might also compromise the ability of new science students to receive adequate financial aid for their studies—make the current situation worse.
So, what can American scientists do to combat these threats?
One solution may be to examine ourselves and make slight changes to our behavior.
Many non-scientists feel that scientists should act in certain ways. We are the data collectors, aggregators, pattern trackers, and anomaly pointer-outers. Our visibility and importance to politicians and the public at large often ends there. There is a strain in American society that suggests that scientists are accepted with enthusiasm so long as our research and conclusions are limited to certain contexts, such as to discoveries and design/process improvements in medicine, materials, machines, chemicals and other products that increase profits for the companies that sponsor this research–along with the odd exoplanet or dinosaur discovery. To a lesser extent, we are valued for our contributions to food and environmental safety and new discoveries. Granted, these may be oversimplifications, but one could argue that to many outside of science, the influence of science in American society stops there, and we should not have a voice beyond the qualified worlds of our research.
The behavioral change I am suggesting is that we should not give into the pressure to fold ourselves into this stereotype. We need to transcend the limitations politicians and corporations place on us.
Our behavior should remain professional, of course, and we should continue to do our scientific work—whether that work is in foundational research, in applications, or in communicating the meaning of new findings to the public. Our activities should also go beyond the expected traditional community outreach to primary and secondary schools and conferences with our peers. At a minimum, all of us should attend meetings of our local school boards and town councils to weigh in on issues where science and good civic stewardship overlap. We must not be afraid to reach beyond this, when time allows. One can argue that Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye are the public faces of science in the United States in the media, but surely there is plenty of room for others as guests on news programs, talk shows, and in other formats.
Scientists on cable news: fish out of water?
News formats are given to panel-debate segments where positions for and against are often argued to the point of conversational fireworks between the talking heads. To win in these formats, the scientist must be a gifted orator capable of condensing complex information down to sound bites. This is an extremely difficult task, and scientists attempting to provide background on climate change, vaccines, or particulate matter in the atmosphere would be better served with more time. Perhaps we could deliver our messages more effectively in longer segments that allowed for experiments, model runs, and analysis how-to? Showing how applied science is done in quick and innovative ways—possibly within serious segments of late-night talk shows—might just educate the public with respect to the scientific method and the practicalities of doing science as well as impress them by the results. Segments where scientists and engineers set up solar panels or demonstrate how the pH of water decreases as carbon dioxide absorption increases are some examples of how to accomplish these goals.
Throughout this governmental transition and chaos that has followed in its wake, we must remember that we are the custodians of objective truth. The public trusts us to make their aircraft fly and the cars they drive work. They trust that the science behind safe foods, medicine, clean air, and clean water is there to protect them from unnecessary threats.
No amount of political disinformation can change the fact that water still freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and it is neither an “alternative fact” nor an unpatriotic claim to state water’s freezing point in Celsius. Engineering constants still apply, and chemical reactions remain reproducible regardless of who sits behind the desk in the Oval Office.
How making public policy is unlike doing science
Public policy is often made by anecdote, oratory skill, and financial backing. Science advises policy through observation, data collection, experimentation, and modeling. All things being equal, which process is more reliable and defensible? We would do well to remember this when we politely interrupt agenda-driven politicians and business leaders to call for increases in the controls on carbon emissions, describe the benefits of a vaccinated population, and explain how evolution works, or argue for other positions related to important scientific topics.
The last four weeks have shown us that the era of gentle reflective science will need to end.
We should not act as if we can count on government funding and unquestioned moral support for our work. It is time to bring active, assertive science into the spotlight, specifically the process of doing science so that we can make the case for its value amidst a sea of disinformation.
Make science cool again
Other writers have stated recently that science suffers from a marketing problem. For the average American, science isn’t as cool as it needs to be—despite the dizzying technological developments that took place during the Space Race and afterward and more recent advances in understanding DNA, computers, renewable energy, and medicine. It’s time to make it cool again, so we can make America smart again, as Neil deGrasse Tyson says. We must continue to do the one-on-one and small-group engagement in our classrooms, laboratories, and our visits to schools, but we must also not shy away from disputes with politicians and other non-scientists in our town halls and throughout the media, so that we can convey confidently and effectively our findings and the legitimacy of our truth-seeking processes.
John Rafferty joined Britannica in 2006, the same year he completed his Ph.D. in geography from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His dissertation examined the potential collision between rising wolf populations and projected changes in land use in northern Wisconsin. He also holds an M.S. in environmental science and policy from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay (1995) and a B.S. in environmental science from St. Norbert College (1992), and served as a professor in the biology department of Lewis University, where he taught organismal biology, environmental science, ecology, and earth science. @
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