The assault on sci­ence

Pop­ulist poli­cies have begun to affect sci­ence adversely. The trou­ble is, they are hap­pen­ing slowly enough that nobody seems to notice.

Hidden in the cloudy reportage about Donald Trump’s fund­ing for NASA’s manned mis­sion to Mars were sev­eral char­ac­ter­is­tic absences of facts. Some­how, ever since Mr Trump’s elec­tion cam­paign came into full swing last year, the absence of facts has been nor­malised even if report­ing lies out­right thank­fully remains frowned upon. (One won­ders how soon that will change.)

This time, though, most main­stream media took part in this, per­haps unwit­tingly: the Wash­ing­ton Post seemed unnec­es­sar­ily excited by the news of Mr Trump sign­ing the bill, and ABC fix­ated on a joke about send­ing the US Con­gress to space, sparked by Ted Cruz and car­ried on by the pres­i­dent.

To my knowl­edge it was only the BBC that rightly pointed out that NASA’s fund­ing has actu­ally been cut by about four-hun­dred mil­lion dol­lars. Fur­ther, the halfway mis­sion to get humans into lunar orbit from which a Mars mis­sion was orig­i­nally intended to have been ini­ti­ated is now dead. Even Elon Musk had to step in on Twit­ter and clar­ify that the bill Mr Trump signed changes almost noth­ing about what NASA is doing’.

What few are focus­ing on is that while plan­e­tary sci­ence gained fund­ing (and I am per­son­ally extremely happy about that) envi­ron­men­tal research agen­cies suf­fered a blow. Appar­ently, as Nature reports, the White House con­sid­ers mon­i­tor­ing the envi­ron­ment a waste of tax payers’ money’. The US National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion, the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency (EPA), the DSCOVR mis­sion and others all lost con­sid­er­able fund­ing.

None of this is sur­pris­ing, which is pre­cisely where the danger lies. The Repub­li­cans have always been dis­be­liev­ers in global warm­ing, but to cut off fund­ing for the research insti­tu­tions that can, at least, prove that global warm­ing is a real and present danger is simply being in denial. What we must be wor­ry­ing about is that what was always seen as out­ra­geous is becom­ing the expected in Mr Trump’s admin­is­tra­tion.

That the gov­ern­ment is bent on tar­get­ing envi­ron­men­tal agen­cies should be still less of a sur­prise when you con­sider that the head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, is a former state attor­ney gen­eral who has sued the EPA four­teen times in the past. This is, unfor­tu­nately, not a joke no matter how much it seems like one. This makes no more sense than does appoint­ing Richard Dawkins as the next pope.

The whole story has been care­fully crafted: deliver bad news mixed with bits of good news and our opti­mism over­shad­ows, and tends to jus­tify, the neg­a­tive news. It may seem para­noid to state that the EPA losing fund­ing spells a down­hill tra­jec­tory for envi­ron­men­tal watch­ers but it is impor­tant to remem­ber that every­thing starts small. It is the fact that the Trump admin­is­tra­tion can quickly grow unchecked that we must be wor­ried about. Right now, Mr Trump has his people placed exactly where he needs them: a serial fake news prop­a­ga­tor as his White House Chief Strate­gist, a global warm­ing dis­be­liever as head of the EPA; an orig­i­nal­ist, anti-euthana­sia judge as the pres­i­den­tial Supreme Court nom­i­nee; a former neu­ro­sur­geon who once said him­self that he was unqual­i­fied to lead the hous­ing and urban devel­op­ment wing is now sec­re­tary of that same wing etc.

Mr Trump has care­fully filled posi­tions in his cab­i­net based entirely upon his own inter­ests. It may be argued that he has placed them in a manner that would make it easy for him to fulfil his cam­paign promises, but is let­ting our carbon emis­sions lose on the envi­ron­ment any sort of improve­ment at all?

Slowly but with dan­ger­ous cer­tainty an assault on sci­ence has begun. The foun­da­tion of sci­ence is to inves­ti­gate phe­nom­ena and accept the truth whether we like it or not, not skew facts to what we want them to be, and by manip­u­lat­ing sci­en­tific agen­cies by freez­ing their funds (as with the EPA) and order­ing them to iso­late them­selves from public aware­ness (as with the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture), or simply can­celling meet­ings with­out reason (as with the CDC), Mr Trump and his gov­ern­ment is ensur­ing that only things that are in line with their views are allowed and every­thing else is blocked off. Or, more specif­i­cally, that things that are not against their per­spec­tive are encour­aged and this encour­age­ment is blown up in the media to mask the many steps they are taking to cut off equally useful insti­tu­tions that may not agree with them directly, all in the guise of bettie using tax payers’ money.

At the end of the day, how­ever, there is little sense in hit­ting back: Mr Trump’s elec­tion to the White House was proof that we have learnt little, if any­thing, from his­tory and that people who try to oppose sci­ence are usu­ally proved glo­ri­ously wrong and soci­ety quickly for­gets about them.

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