28th March, 2017
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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