It’s not often you see a public celebration of science. But come April, thousands of people, scientists and others, are expected to march in support of the field and its contributions to society.
But the March for Science is also a response to the feeling among many scientists that they are under siege by a hostile Trump administration and distrusted by many Americans.
Navigating that tension is the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
With the AAAS annual meeting taking place now in Boston, the group’s president, Barbara Schaal, and CEO, Rush Holt, met with STAT reporters to discuss why scientists need to be politically engaged, their views on the March for Science, and why they worry that the Trump administration hasn’t appointed a science adviser in the White House or scientists in other agencies. Holt is a physicist by training and a former Democratic congressman, and Schaal is a biologist.
Below are excerpts from the conversation. The transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
What’s on scientists’ minds?
RH: What I’m finding among scientists is an uneasiness that goes back years, even decades, about an eroding appreciation of science, how it works, and how it’s incorporated into our society. And it seems to be in a crescendo right now. Questions about, do the public and policymakers have an understanding of — or as we scientists would say, a reverence for — evidence? I think that will probably underlie much of the discussion at this meeting.
Is this erosion from Trump specifically or more broadly?
RH: I’ve been at AAAS for two years now and long before that I was talking about troubling signs where, for example, ideological assertions were crowding out evidence in personal and public discussions, and in policymaking. But when one of Trump’s closest advisers talks about “alternative facts” without any embarrassment, well then, yes, it’s connected.
BS: The concern for the wellbeing of science is something we’re hearing a lot of. We’re hearing a lot more of that with the new administration. There’s also a lot of concern that we as a science community, and also the public and the government, really don’t do a good job of discussing the value of science, the importance of science, in terms of providing the basic discoveries that lead to new technologies and industries and are ultimately an important part of our economy.
What are the concerns with the new administration?
BS: The importance of appointing a science adviser to the president and also making the appointments in all the various agencies. It goes back to this concern about basing policy on strong evidence but even more so, there are kinds of things that present an immediate challenge to the government and you need to have science advisers. So for example Fuksuhima or the Deepwater Horizon Macondo well oil spill. If there’s a crisis, you can’t really begin to determine at that time who’s going to be the chief scientists of EPA or USDA.
If there is a crisis, what’s your confidence level in this administration right now?
BS: I would say the transition has not been smooth. I think that’s why we’re pushing for a science adviser because we are worried that if there is a crisis, we won’t have that kind of resource.
RH: If there’s an emerging disease that pops up in this country or elsewhere, I would say we are not prepared. We just have not succeeded in convincing the new administration that what we’re asking for is not a science plant inside the White House to look out for the interests of people in lab coats, but rather to get them to understand that it’s in their interest to integrate science and scientifically evaluated evidence into their policy making.
Who are you reaching out to and what are they saying?
RH: Within days [of the election], we wrote a letter to Trump, saying we’d like to meet with you and whomever you designate. Copies to Mike Pence. I’ve written a letter on behalf of AAAS to every single cabinet nominee to say, “You realize of course you are heading up a science agency.” I don’t think we’ve had a single reply to any of those letters yet. We did have a reply from the transition team saying, thanks for the letter. We had about a half-hour conversation, an hour conversation with someone whose name I’d never heard, so I don’t think this was a central adviser. It’s not that we’re concerned that we don’t get no respect, it’s that that we have a problem in our society that most people think that science is irrelevant to all of their major concerns. They think it’s neat, they think it’s pretty, but they don’t come to Washington saying, I guess we better get up to speed on science and technology because of next month’s crisis.
Would scientists take positions in the Trump administration?
BS: It’s a real concern. If everyone turns them down that’s a really bad sign, one for the nation, because we don’t have that kind of expertise, assuming it would be listened to, but also because it portrays the scientific community in a bad light.
So are you saying scientists should take appointments?
BS: I think they should consider it.
What’s been the reaction to the election?
BS: I have never seen my colleagues so galvanized than after this most recent election. People are talking about, what do we do? If you look at the membership of AAAS, it’s shooting up.
Are you worried about that backfiring?
BS: We’re very concerned about that in particular because we do butt up against the political. What we’re interested in is using evidence to make the right kind of decisions. The problem is when that evidence is rejected, for example the evidence of climate change, that rejection is a political rejection. So if you are forceful in saying, “No, the data, the evidence, the temperature readings show that there’s climate change,” it’s so easy to push that into a political arena because it is against what another group is doing, using belief systems and politics to reject evidence. It’s very sticky.
RH: It’s a concern, but scientists have to be reminded that the response to a challenge to science is not to retreat to the microscope, to the laboratory, to the ivory tower. This requires vigorous defense. We think science is so beneficial to society that it should be defended.
Why do you think a lot of scientists don’t run for office, and should they?
RH: There are more scientists this year who have contacted me about thinking about running for office than I have encountered ever, which is another indication of the state of anxiety out there. My first answer to them is, “Do it.” There’s no magic to it and it’s really hard, but it’s worthwhile. Why don’t scientists do it? I think the biggest reason is that they can’t get over this psychological hurdle that politics is dirty and science is clean.
Do you have a position on the March for Science?
RH: We have said that we are going to work energetically with our members, with our affiliate societies to see that the March for Science is a success.
BS: The folks that I talk to, they’re really in two camps. One group says this a potential disaster, it’s going to really politicize science, and it’s going to hurt the entire endeavor. And then there’s another group that says just get me on a bus, I’m coming.
Which camp are you in?
BS: I guess I’m thinking of the bus, but I’m not quite there yet.