Science Policy: Anxiety and Resolve at AAAS Conference

A panel discussion on channeling science into policy served as a forum for debating the role of scientists under the current administration. 

By | February 21, 2017

UCS panel at the AAAS annual meeting in Boston (left to right: Gretchen Goldman, John Holdren, Jane Lubchenco, Lewis Branscomb, Amy Luers, Andrew Rosenberg)BEN ANDREW HENRYFifteen minutes before a panel discussion entitled “Defending Science and Scientific Integrity in the Age of Trump,” listeners had already filled the rows of seats; newcomers stood shoulder to shoulder against the back wall or sat cross-legged in the walkways. The discussion, held Saturday (February 18) and organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), was one of the more overtly political events during last week’s American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) 2017 Annual Meeting in Boston, the theme of which was “Serving Society Through Science Policy.”

During the UCS panel on Saturday, the mood of the crowd—which erupted occasionally into cheers—reflected a political energy that enlivened the conference, coming on the heels of a tumultuous first month for the administration of President Donald Trump.

The panel began by enumerating the threats that scientists and science advocates believe could be coming their way during the next four to eight years.

John Holdren, chief science advisor to former President Barack Obama and former director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said that President Trump’s interest in expensive projects, combined with his promises to lower taxes would likely require slashing research funding in order to balance the books.

“When discretionary spending is threatened, R&D tends to be the first to go,” Holdren said. “Many members of Congress don’t understand that basic research is the seed from which future advances will come” and, as a result, “basic research at the NSF [National Science Foundation] has been under fire for a long time.”

See “Science Funding Criteria Challenged

Another concern was that a federal government perceived to be hostile to scientists would struggle to recruit the best and brightest researchers for influential government posts. Panelist Jane Lubchenco, a researcher at Oregon State University and a former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) official, warned that a government brain drain could jeopardize everything from the accuracy of weather forecasts to the pace of medical advancements. “I fear that neither policymakers nor citizens will have access to the best available science, because federal scientists will be afraid or unable to do their best work and share it,” Lubchenco said.

An ongoing argument among scientists in the wake of the presidential election has been whether it is appropriate for scientists to take up political advocacy. Some have expressed concerned that outspoken scientists will erode public trust in the fairness of science.

See “Will a March Help Science?

But panelist Gretchen Goldman, research director at the UCS Center for Science and Democracy, said the time for fretting over optics has passed. “This is a different sport,” Goldman said, arguing that scientists can no longer be confident their research will be incorporated into policy decisions under the new administration, and therefore more forceful advocacy is in order. “We can’t afford to dismantle that process.”

“We’ve seen so far that President Trump isn’t going to respect science or respect scientists,” she added, citing the US Department of Agriculture’s “gag order” fiasco and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s temporary temporary freeze on grants and contracts.

To advocate or not?

Earlier in the day, Jack Kaye, associate director for research at NASA’s Earth Science Division, offered a more reserved view. “We’re not trying to favor one course of action over another,” Kaye told The Scientist. “We’ll tell you what the Earth is doing and, with modeling, we’ll tell you what we expect the Earth to do in the future if we follow a certain course of action.” But when it comes to the final judgment call as to which policies best serve the public, he said, “society has to make that choice through a political process.”

Remaining outside the political fray, Kaye said, ensures scientists can stand by the objectivity of their research. He pointed to past NASA work for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which helped determine the effects of fossil fuel emissions on global temperatures. “If there had been a sense out there that there’s [a position on climate change] that we favor, people may wonder about our objectivity.”

On Sunday (February 19), some AAAS conference-goers streamed out of the Hynes Convention Center during lunchtime to gather in Copley Square—around half a mile away—for the “Stand Up for Science” rally, where speakers exhorted the audience to oppose policies that run contrary to scientific evidence. To the concern that such an event might undermine the objectivity of science, several rally attendees responded with a common refrain: science has already been politicized.

See “Sights (and Signs) of #StandUpForScience

Moreover, rally attendees said, the stakes are too high to risk the body of scientific evidence being bulldozed into the political landscape, especially on issues of healthcare and the environment.

“We need the EPA to protect the environment,” said Herman Winick of Stanford University, who was in town for the AAAS annual meeting. With the confirmation of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the agency, Winick added, “the EPA is essentially gutted.”

The mood inside the room during Saturday’s UCS panel discussion suggested conference attendees resoundingly agreed with the feeling of alarm and sense of urgency on display at Saturday’s rally.

“Please don’t make science partisan,” Lubchenco pleaded during the panel discussion. “It isn’t, it shouldn’t be, and don’t buy into that framing.”

“The public is going to suffer if the politicization of science is normalized,” said Goldman. “We cannot allow that to happen. If science is not able to inform policy decisions, we all lose.”

Scientists and science supporters should focus on communication, said Holdren. “It’s not just enough to say ‘Trust me.’ We need to do a better job, in multiple ways, showing why [research] is relevant,” he said. “Get better at telling stories about how and why science matters and how science works, and tell those stories to every audience you can find.”

Further reading

Opinion: Sometimes, Scientists Must March,” The Scientist, February 13, 2017

Opinion: Should Scientists Engage in Activism?” The Scientist, February 7, 2017

TS Picks: Trump’s First Week in Office,” The Scientist, January 26, 2017
Trumping Science: Part III,” The Scientist, January 12, 2017
Trumping Science: Part II,” The Scientist, December 6, 2016

Trumping Science?The Scientist, November 11, 2016

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Avatar of: True Scientist

True Scientist

Posts: 59

February 21, 2017

Wow, what a title for panel discussion - “Defending Science and Scientific Integrity in the Age of Trump”. It says it all. As usual, all statements are strongly evidence based - the first month for the administration was tumultuous (who created it?), many members of Congress don’t understand the role of basic research (because they are Republicans?), the federal government is hostile to scientists (where did this come from?), a government brain drain will jeopardize everything (is it a cry for lost positions?), nobody will have access to the best available science, because federal scientists will be afraid or unable to do their best work and share it (are the panel members delusional?), President Trump isn’t going to respect science or respect scientists....  We live in a time of war that has nothing to do with Science. What a shameful period...

Avatar of: dmarciani


Posts: 39

February 21, 2017

While I am not a cheerleader for the present administration, after reading this article it is evident that academia is having a hysteria attack. I will recommend to the scientists and the staff of The Scientist, to take a deep breath and count to a 100, hopefully good sense will return to their brains. From the article, it is apparent that this people believe that they are living in the Dark Ages, Nazi Germany, and China during the Cultural Revolution or the USSR during Stalin; yet, I expect that some will have sympathies for the last two. Their actions show political insecurity, because considering the US political structure, its history and constitution, only the naïve will act like they are living in a banana republic. Also and for their information, conservatives are not naturally born criminals or brainless, as some of the good professors seem to believe. Perhaps academicians and scientists should do a better job trying to educate the average population about the benefits of science and it would help if they leave their superiority feelings at home. Inform the public what science has done for society without becoming too political, I am sure that even those that do not have a college education will understand the problems of pollution and the benefits of a clean environment, or why vaccines are crucial for public health, if they are explained in clear terms and dealing with the people as equals and not as inferiors. After all, scientists and academicians need to remember that like it or not, in a democratic system the government represents the majority and not just the elite. 

Avatar of: Jrrmin


Posts: 1

February 21, 2017

Your "science" magazine should stay away from political commentary and stay in science.  The problem with this fear mongering article occurs immediately in the third paragraph:

"The panel began by enumerating the threats that scientists and science advocates believe could be coming their way during the next four to eight years.

John Holdren, chief science advisor to former President Barack Obama and former director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said that President Trump’s interest in expensive projects, combined with his promises to lower taxes would likely require slashing research funding in order to balance the books.

The entire premise of the article is based on "could" as stated by the "former".  What do you expect a recently ousted political appointee to say?

Sad, fake news in such a fine magazine.

Avatar of: Salticidologist


Posts: 40

February 21, 2017

I side with the folks who want to emphasize that science is not government, not policy, and not funding levels.  Science is just what it is, and those who want to further the public view that science is political with respect to the EPA, etc., do it a disservice.  A scientist can help you to understand the chemistry and manufacture of plastics, but a scientist (as a scientist) cannot stop you from dumping your plastics into the rivers.  There is no doubt that we can do much better in environmental policy, depending on objectives, but that is a different subject.  Some of us like wildlife, but wildlife is not served by advances in tropical medicine that raise the human population.  So science works on both sides of the major issues, and this should be recognized.  Science will continue to make even more powerful tools available to replace people, to control minds, and to fight wars, in the future.  What we do with it is a separate issue.  I have a scientific hypothesis for which there is much support:  Science accelerates the development of technology, and the effects of technology can be both good and bad based on different value systems of the affected societies.  The notion that science invariably advances life on our planet is not supported.  Humility is in order here.

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