Amid lopping of federal funds for research, a swell of scientists in politics

Monday, November 27th, 2017 

At the March on Science, a protester yields a 'Hypotheses Not Hypocrisies' sign

Photo by PublicDomainPictures.net

A protester touts a sign of the times at the March for Science in Washington, D.C., last Earth Day.

Earth Day's science march

Thousands of people descended upon the nation’s capital during the March for Science on April 22. Marchers swaying witty banners and poster-board signs followed a riled-up Bill Nye down Constitution Avenue in one of the largest shows of support for science in recent history. 

The march, which spread worldwide, was a public stance against growing scientific mistrust among conservatives in the country that has fueled what The New York Times has called a war on science

The March for Science emerged from a Reddit comment posted after the Women’s March on Washington, which drew millions to the District 24 hours after Trump’s inauguration in January.

Thousands of science marchers huddled en masse in downtown Portland, Oregon.

Photo by Joe Frazier/Wikimedia

Thousands of science marchers huddled en masse in downtown Portland, Oregon, last Earth Day.

A group of volunteer scientists — most in their 20s and 30s — ballooned the event to a global day of demonstration that included more than a million marchers in 600 cities on six continents, according to The Washington Post.

March organizers announced plans to form a nonprofit six months later. They also rebuilt an online front page to bring together their newly formed base from those marchers.

The group plans to develop free resources for science advocates, including town hall attendance manuals, call scripts for phoning lawmakers and policy briefs geared toward science policy, The Post reported.

In the days after the march, organizers urged participants to phone elected officials and to give in-kind to “citizen science” projects, in which the general public aids with data collection.

Trump’s cuts federal funds for science

Nov. 8 marked the anniversary of Donald Trump’s secured nomination for the 45th president. During his 41 weeks in office, President Trump has trimmed federal programs for scientific research and lifted rules imagined to help protect public land, water and air. 

EPA chief Scott Pruitt speaks at a Political Action Committee conference in National Harbor, Maryland.

Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr

EPA chief Scott Pruitt speaks at a Political Action Committee conference at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland.

His 2018 budget request cuts the National Institutes of Health budget by 18 percent and the National Science Foundation by 11 percent, according to The Washington Post. 

It also siphons $1.2 billion from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s annual budget.

Trump’s EPA chief Scott Pruitt publicly led efforts to defund the agency he now runs. State department head Rex Tillerson ran Exxon, the 10th-largest company by revenue in the world, for a decade.

Trump’s nomination for chief scientist in the agriculture department, Sam Clovis, confirmed Nov. 10 that he has limited science credentials. The Clovis name is no longer on the table because of alleged ties to special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing Russian probe.

More scientists speaking up

More researchers in this country, who are normally averse to politics, are speaking out since the 2016 presidential election. 

Most recently, scientists took part in last month’s #ScientistsTakeAKnee social media campaign, showing support for NFL players who are kneeling during the national anthem in protest of racial injustice in America.

A growing number of scientists are running for office, too, with support from 314 Action, a Political Action Committee that former Pennsylvania congressional candidate and chemist Shaughnessy Naughton assembled last year.

Beyond scientists’ distaste for White House skepticism of science, the research fields face their own controversies. Racial disparities, underrepresentation of women and unreconciled relationships with marginalized communities are the more pervasive problems coming to light.

An activist group, 500 Women Scientists, which assembled after the 2016 election, dissolved its partnership with the March for Science before Earth Day.

“When we were finally brought onboard, we were largely sidelined, and our offers to help were ignored.”

 

The group’s co-founder, Jane Zelikova, who has an advanced degree in ecology, said the organizers of the march were a “non-factor” for her organization. 

She first partnered with the organizers to ensure the mission of 500 Women Scientists, which turns on inclusivity and diversity in the science, technology engineering and mathematics fields, was part of the conversation on Earth Day.

Zelikova said it wasn’t.

“As many of us saw, the march fumbled those issues, repeatedly,” Zelikova said. “When we were finally brought onboard, we were largely sidelined, and our offers to help were ignored.”

Her worst fears were realized during the Trump administration, Zelikova said — unqualified nominees, who took the helm of federal science agencies, and protections to some of America’s most vulnerable populations were dissolved.

“I have seen scientists speak up in a way that I have never seen before,” Zelikova said. “Most scientists were initially very uncomfortable speaking out. But as the attacks became more egregious and shameless, the initial discomfort has largely dissipated for many.”

Jacob Scherr, now retired, worked at the Natural Resources Defense Council for 37 years. As a young lawyer, he moved to Washington at the dawn of the environmental movement. He said he’s worked with many scientists since.

Jacob Scherr, NRDC

Photo by Vrinda Manglik/Flickr

Jacob Scherr, pointing, stands on a green roof of the CII-Sohrabji Godrej Green Business Center in Hyderabad, India, the nation's Silicon Valley, in Sept. 2011. The center was Asia's first LEED Platinum-rated building.

 

“There really was an effort to try to base decision-making in Washington not on whim or politics, but on reason and truth,” Scherr said. 

It’s different now, he said. Lately, Trump’s administration has made a “concerted effort” to attack scientific truth.

Scherr partnered with the Earth Day Network in the weeks before the march. He curated the line-up of 22 speakers. He said people didn’t show up for the entertainment. Rather, he said people showed, despite steady rain, because they were really worried about the threat to science some conservatives pose. 

“This administration has thrown down some fundamental challenges to American society,” Scherr said. “We all get in cars every day that rely on a tremendous amount of technology and science. To turn around and deny science — when it comes to climate change or toxics or management of natural resources — is pretty crazy.

“The challenge is that social movements take time,” Scherr said.

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Profiles of notable journalists and their stories of key moments in U.S. history in the last 50 years can be found on the Investigating Power site. See Workshop Executive Editor Charles Lewis' latest video interviews as well as historic footage and timelines. You can also read more about the project and why we documented these groundbreaking examples of original, investigative journalism that helped shape or change public perceptions on key issues of our time, from civil rights to Iraq, here.