Marching for Science: Attacks on a “post-fact” world?

Last Saturday, on Earth Day 2017, thousands of people attended ‘Marches for Science’ in cities across the world. 40,000 marched in Washington, D.C. alone… but what were they actually marching for? People looking at these events may be wondering, ‘what is happening to science?’, ‘why does science need protecting?’, or ‘how is science under attack?’

These are all excellent questions. Especially because some of the concerns held by those attending may be difficult to see in the everyday lives of those of us who are not scientists. These scientific issues may get lost in the constant deluge of concerning news that the media has to report. There’s so much to talk about that some problems get left in the dark—problems upon which the global marches for science hoped to shed light. Although anti-science thinking is widespread across the globe, some of the most blatant offences have occurred under the Trump administration in the United States. While President Trump spouts a dangerous anti-globalist ideology of “America First”, the US is one of the world’s leaders in science and technology research. Therefore their partners in research, as well as those affected by the research that America conducts, are all affected by changes to US science policy. Here we lay out a few of the major examples:

  1. An Empty Science and Technology Office: As of March 30th, the Trump administration has left key scientific governmental positions unfilled. When a new president comes into office, it is customary for all the top senior advisory positions in the government to be cleared and re-filled by the incoming president. President Trump, however, has cleared the entirety of the Science and Technology Office, which previously comprised 24 employees, and has only hired one person so far to fill the gap—and has still not appointed a head of this office almost 100 days into his administration.
  2. Widespread Climate-Denial by Key Government Leaders: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the primary steward of the environment in the US, and as part of his administration change President Trump appointed Scott Pruitt, former attorney general of Oklahoma, as its head. Pruitt has formally said that CO2 is not a major contributor to climate change and that climate change is not an immediate issue in our world. As if this weren’t discouraging enough, Pruitt’s professed beliefs fall in line with those held by the head of the Department of Energy, Rick Perry, and the head of the Department of the Interior, Ryan Zinke. They all believe that climate change is unsubstantiated, deny its effects, and have actively worked against climate change legislation and other environmental protection measures. The Guardian published the full list of President Trump’s cabinet member’s beliefs on climate change. Among the fifteen picks, ten have openly expressed anti-climate change sentiment. The beliefs of the remaining five are not well known, but when the President himself denies the existence of climate change, it seems likely that none of his hand-picked administrators will be in a hurry to disagree with him.
  3. Funding cuts to essential science organizations: Trump’s first proposed budget plans contained severe cuts to non-military spending, including cutting The National Institute of Health’s budget by 20%. The proposed budget completely abolishes some programs like the Fogarty International Center of NIH, a program dedicated to finding solutions to global health issues. In the proposed budget plan the EPA would lose about a third of its funding, more than any other agency whose funding has been cut, and, as we mentioned in our ‘Breaking the Silence’ video, any mention of climate change has been removed from the EPA’s home website. The DOE Office of Science would also lose 20% of its budget under the plan, and NASA and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) would lose about 2% and 5% of their budgets, respectively. This lack of prioritization of and support for scientific research could have a huge effect on global health, technology, and progress.
  4. Reversal of Obama-Era Climate Change Legislation: Think whatever you like about the Obama administration, but it was relatively proactive in terms of climate-change legislation. Trump has ordered Pruitt to retract and undo the ‘Clean Power Plan’ enacted by President Obama. The Clean Power Plan was the strongest action ever taken by the US against climate change, enacting measures that would make it possible for the US to reduce its greenhouse emissions by 32% by 2030. This is what the US promised to do in the Paris Agreement at the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference. Some of the actions that would be necessary to achieve this goal include the closing of hundreds of coal-fueled power plans and the restriction of building any more. Under the Trump administration, the Clean Power Plan is being retracted and completely re-written. Although there has been no official statement from the Trump administration on reneging the US’s participation in the UN Paris Agreement, not adhering to the Clean Power Plan will make it impossible for the US to follow-through on its climate action promises.

These are just a few of the recent developments that have scientists and citizens alike up in arms and out in the streets. The general issues of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ have contributed to the loss of weight given to expert-advised, evidence-based thinking and information. How can we know what’s really going on if no one knows what’s real? All we can do is encourage ourselves and others to be discerning, discriminating consumers of media, to keep a close eye on science policy developments, and to speak out in protest when we see the world’s leaders taking steps backwards.

Maren Hunsberger

 

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