Thursday, 16 February 2017

Scientists Offer Four Guidelines for Maintaining Scientific Integrity in the Age of Trump

Science only works when it's apolitical. It requires a unique sort of freedom, which is the freedom to reach unpopular conclusions. From vaccines to GMOs to climate change, this is a tension that exists across the political spectrum. It's a constant battle, even in an era when so much of our lives are defined by not just science and technology, but the assurance of continued scientific and technological progress. It's weird to consider that progress as provisional.  

But that's where we are. It's not just climate change and the environment, it's the whole scientific enterprise. In its demands for evidence and insistence on questioning "alternative facts," science is a target and scientists are well aware of this. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a 200,000-member organization that generally advocates for using science to solve environmental and social problems, is, well, concerned. 

In a piece published Thursday in Science, Gretchen Goldman and colleagues at the UCS lay out four general guidelines for maintaining scientific integrity in an era where science will be attacked simply for being science—that is, how to tell the truth amidst an open revolt against truth.

"Early indications that the Administration plans to distort or disregard science and evidence, coupled with the chaos and confusion occurring within federal agencies, now imperils the effectiveness of our government," Goldman writes. "The scientific community will need to connect science-informed policy to positive outcomes and staunchly defend scientific freedom. It must also spotlight political interference in science-based policy development and be prepared to protect scientists—both within and outside the government—against executive or legislative overreach."

Read More: Scientists' New Role in Trump's America: The Resistance

The four guidelines summarized in the piece are pragmatic and, indeed, defensive. To start, the scientific community needs to demonstrate public support for the work of federal scientists. 

Given the recently resurrected Holman Rule—which gives Congress the authority to reduce the pay of individual federal workers to $1—the feds now have tremendous power when it comes to punishing and silencing individual scientists. If scientists are going to remain willing to share research that may not be politically popular, we should be able to offer at least the cover of public opinion. Votes still matter, at least for now.

Second, scientists need to be prepared to defend the scientific basis for regulations that protect the public, whether it's from sketchy drug companies, polluters, or whatever else. Regulation is like the height of evil in Trumpland, and a whole lot of regulations have a basis in science. Ultimately, this may mean scientists are the ones left to defend these regulations.

The third point is closely related to that and basically reduces to fighting back. Congress is going to pass laws excluding scientists from public policy decisions and we can expect those laws to find a receptive White House. This is where scientists can lose in a really wholesale way, as they're institutionally shut out of the process. We need to jam a foot in the door.

"Finally," Goldman and co. write, "scientists can individually engage by providing scientific advice to decision-makers and communicating the importance of their work to those outside the scientific community. They can be conduits of information when scientific integrity is compromised in government. They can fiercely protect university independence. And they can defend peers who become political targets for speaking up."

As a manifesto for scientific relevance in post-truth politics, the UCS piece ends on a hopeful-ish note: "The scientific community is well positioned for what may lie ahead. Already, scientific societies have asked the Trump Administration to appoint a science adviser and more than 5500 scientists have signed a letter asking the Administration to uphold scientific integrity. Alarms must sound when science is silenced, manipulated, or otherwise compromised."

To a certain extent, as an advocate you just have to be optimistic. A much larger share of Americans claims to be interested in science than voted for Donald Trump, at least. That hardly assures its place in public policy circa 2017, but we—scientists, the media, the scientifically-minded public—won't let it go quietly. 

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