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Trump and the anti-science movement

| Tuesday, January 24, 2017

On Jan. 20, Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. For some people, this poses an exciting change — for others, it’s a terrifying threat. Trump’s campaign could be catalogued as a series of attacks: on his fellow candidates, on the media, on women, immigrants and other marginalized groups. And if the persecution of these individuals isn’t enough for our new president, his election has put another, perhaps less obvious, group under fire: our scientists.

Both on the campaign trail and as president-elect, Trump has challenged scientific facts. His disbelief in science seems to be a matter of pride, as he takes to Twitter again and again to flaunt his doubts in the scientific process. Trump doubts the legitimacy of climate change, famously calling it a Chinese “hoax.” He accuses vaccines of causing autism and announced his intent to form a “vaccine safety panel.” He has said that fracking “poses zero health risks” while windmills “are bad for people’s health,” that environmentally friendly light bulbs “cause cancer” and that the World Trade Center burned down because someone removed “flame-retardant asbestos,” a notorious carcinogen.

Where Trump gets the information for these claims is unclear, but that apparently doesn’t matter to him or his followers. Each of the above claims can and has been thoroughly disproved by our own scientists — but again, that doesn’t seem to matter. With the election of Donald Trump, the world seems to have fallen into two categories: those who believe in the process of peer-review, and those who would rather cling to “alternative facts.” It’s a sobering moment when a presidential candidate says, “I believe in science,” and it’s a controversial statement — that was Hilary Clinton, by the way, when she accepted the Democratic nomination.

Given Trump’s blatant disregard for the scientific process, it’s no wonder that American scientists are terrified. The first concern is funding — some 80% of research is federally funded, according to a 2015 study from Boston University, coming from agencies like the National Institute of Health (NIH) or the National Science Foundation (NSF). If the federal government doesn’t see the value in that research and cuts the scientific budget, those organizations have less money to hand out, and research suffers. Federal funding for science has already taken significant hits; the NIH reports that it has lost over 20% of its available research funds in the last 10 years, resulting in “fewer grants, fewer discoveries, and talented scientists leaving research.” With the election of a president who is vocally anti-science, many worry that funding will take additional hits that the field simply cannot afford.

Some scientists feel more threatened by the new administration than others. A group of climate change scientists notoriously spent the days before the inauguration frantically copying down data from the Environmental Protection Agency and other government websites, which they fear may soon be taken down. They’re right to worry — Trump’s administration has already removed all pages devoted to climate change issues from the White House website, disregarding the findings of hundreds of scientists in one fell swoop.

But perhaps just as disturbing as Donald Trump’s tangible actions against science are the anti-science sentiments he is encouraging. Because at the end of the day, Donald Trump isn’t the first person to claim that climate change scientists are lying. He didn’t coin the term “anti-vaccer,” and he’s not the first to argue for increased fracking. Anti-science sentiments already existed — Donald Trump simply built off their momentum. He capitalized on preexisting fears of climate change and vaccines to fuel his campaign, and his election as president has lent credence to movements that should have remained in the fringe. What American scientists are facing now isn’t a new problem — it’s a very old one, that has suddenly become much bigger.

They can’t fight it alone. Part of the problem is that members of the public don’t trust scientists — PhDs can publish data all day long, and Donald Trump’s followers will still say they’re lying. They need help and it has to come from non-scientists. From informed members of the public, who are willing to stand up and say that they believe the hundreds of studies dispelling the vaccine-autism link and the thousands of climate change scientists who say we need to act now. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick, but it will be necessary if we are going to continue scientific progress and preserve the state of research in America.

It’s time we get started.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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