PITTSBURGH — I meet science skeptics everywhere.
Buses, planes, supermarkets — all are packed with people eager to share their doubts that GMOs are safe and that climate change is real, even more so when they find out I’m a scientist.
For the most part, I’ve shrugged off their skepticism. I’m in my first year as a graduate student in the biomedical sciences in Pittsburgh. I’ve assumed that people who ignore well-established science wouldn’t be in position to influence public policy and make decisions that could affect us all.
Events in the past few days convinced me I am wrong.
With news that Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who distrusts vaccines, might be leading a vaccine safety committee under President-elect Donald Trump, that a man who doesn’t believe in climate change has been nominated to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, and that a man who doesn’t want to ensure that drugs actually work before they are marketed has been considered to lead the Food and Drug Administration, the Trump presidency seems poised to lead a war on science. I worry, as I progress in my career, that if government doesn’t like the results of my research, they’ll proclaim it false and discredit me. I’m not the only one.
Scientific findings can be unpopular. But scientists are acutely aware of the economic and political impact of their findings, because we’re people too. We engage in society and live lives just like everyone else. I like to drive — this is a fact. Cars use fossil fuels — also a fact. Fossil fuels lead to global warming — this has been shown over and over again. Not by one scientist but by many, in many different ways. So as much as I like to drive constantly, I should probably drive less. I’m not happy about it, but the evidence is there, and I have to change my behavior to prevent something catastrophic from happening. I can’t just say that because I don’t believe the evidence, that it’s not true.
Scientific findings can make us uncomfortable. They don’t always provide the easy answers we want to hear. Vaccines are safe. It’s a coincidence, a sad coincidence, that children start exhibiting signs of autism around the same time they get vaccines. But that coincidence isn’t cause. Already, we are seeing signs of what vaccine skepticism produces — outbreaks of diseases we had more or less vanquished. As much as we want an easy fix for autism, the research shows that vaccines are not the problem, and avoiding facts only creates more diseases and pain.
How do we know these facts? We repeat experiments. We submit our work for peer review. We don’t assume things are a certain way until we can show that they are. My work is constantly being critiqued and refined and challenged, even within my own lab. In my previous column, I wrote about how my work impacts my boss’s career. It’s in my boss’s best interest that I’m as sure as I can be about my science. Otherwise, there are no diagnostic tests. There are no drugs. There are no treatments.
Yes, fraud and retractions happen. But those incidents are not the bulk of scientific progress.
So why should government and the public trust scientists? We get no personal gain from telling you what you don’t want to hear. We just want policy to be based on scientific consensus, not on opinion, not on emotions, not on the potential for financial gain.
So, I’m scared. Most, if not all, of my graduate training will happen during the Trump presidency in an atmosphere hostile to science. I wonder, will my work have any relevance? Will the project I pour my life into help anyone? If I am able to discover new facts about the world or new therapies, will anyone be listening? I fear that science will get relegated to the land of alchemy or magic where it is ignored because no one believes it is real.
And as a profession, we are scared. We are scared that funding will be cut for work that doesn’t meet a political or financial agenda. We are scared that research will end for things that are crucial to knowledge, but that may lead to unpopular answers. We are scared that fear of science will bring back diseases we’ve beaten, slow progress toward treating others, and create a world where anything that feels wrong is wrong.
I’m scared of that world. You should be too.
Sara Whitlock is a first-year graduate student studying structural biology at the University of Pittsburgh. Her column will appear periodically. This is not hypothetical.