Picture: 123RF/HELENAP 2014
Picture: 123RF/HELENAP 2014

New York — Last week, The Lancet, the well-respected British medical journal, published a report excoriating the Trump administration for leveraging racism and class anxiety to push environmental policies that killed tens of thousands of people.

Not long ago such an article would have been an outlier. Though political conservatives in the US have waged a war on science going back to evolution in the classroom, the vast majority of scientists — and scientific journals — made it a point not to fight back directly. Many thought their research would speak for itself and that their neutrality enhanced their legitimacy. 

But the past four years have brought a tide of change, said Gretchen Goldman, a research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, “reflecting both the severity of what Trump did as well as the changing willingness of the scientific community to engage in policy conversations”. 

Among the things that most inflamed scientists was Donald Trump’s rejection of the wide body of research establishing climate change, which he has called a hoax. But the Trump administration’s removal of independent scientists from advisory panels at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also pushed scientists to take action.

Similarly motivating was a rule severely curtailing which scientific studies could be used as the basis for regulations.

One of the most dramatic examples of scientists leaving the lab to take to the streets was the March for Science on Earth Day 2017 that drew roughly a million people across the world. “That march really ignited a sense of urgency,” said Fernando Tormos-Aponte, who is a fellow at the Union of Concerned Scientists and studies science advocacy and its repercussions.

After Trump was elected, he said, the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit founded to promote the use of rigorous science in solving the world’s most pressing problems, saw its membership swell from 17,500 in the autumn of 2016 to more than 21,000 by the end of 2017.  

Last autumn, several prominent scientific journals — including The New England Journal of Medicine, Nature, and Science — also broke with tradition and ran editorials critical of Trump. Scientific American shocked many when it went further and gave its first ever presidential endorsement to Joe Biden, largely because it argued that Trump was such an awful alternative.

Are the newly activist scientists persuading anyone? Or in sacrificing their neutrality, are they losing legitimacy, as they feared? On that, the evidence is still very mixed. A paper published by the Cambridge University Press concluded that the 2017 March on Science did, in fact, further polarise Americans. “Liberals’ attitudes towards scientists became more positive whereas conservatives’ attitudes became more negative,” the report concluded.

For an issue such as climate change, which is already an ideological marker of political party in the US, this is potentially very discouraging. But Goldman said there may be no putting the genie back in the bottle. “I think it’s part of a broader cultural shift. We’re just seeing it is harder to do science in a vacuum.”

Aponte added that the idea of scientists being free of bias was really only a myth anyway.

“There is always a danger, regardless of whether we want to believe it, of bias in everything from the research questions you choose to examine, to the approaches that you adopt, to the conditions under which you work.” he said. Scientists, “are becoming more comfortable with the idea that subjectivity is around us and that we are just better off being transparent”.


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