OSTON — In auditorium lectures and hallway conversations, politics was in the air at one of the country’s largest science conferences this weekend.
The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science draws thousands of scientists from around the world to discuss research, policy, and science communication. But this year’s focus was disproportionately on President Trump — both as a subtext to many of the sessions on science policy, and occasionally as an explicit target, because of statements he’s made that conflict with scientific evidence, particularly on climate change and vaccine safety.
In a packed auditorium Friday night, science historian Naomi Oreskes gave a lecture on “the scientist as sentinel,” a topic she said seemed to have “a renewed urgency in the present moment.”
She alluded to Trump while discussing scientists’ efforts in the 1950s to educate world leaders on nuclear issues. Nearly all world leaders, she said, now understand how bad a nuclear war would be. “A few months ago I would have said all world leaders, but now I’m going to say nearly,” she said, drawing chuckles from the audience.
The Sunday evening lecture likewise sounded an activist tone. “In this current epoch of uncertainty, I would say to you: Have heart for our sciences. Hold fast to our values of deliberation. Keep high our respect for evidence,” said S. James Gates, Jr., a physicist and former member of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
Other sessions tackled the psychology of fake news and how to engage voters who don’t trust science. A session organized by the Union for Concerned Scientists on Saturday, called “Defending Science and Scientific Integrity in the Age of Trump,” drew so much interest that an overflow room had to be arranged once it became clear that one ballroom would not fit everyone.
Dozens of attendees sported “Ask for Evidence!” buttons, created by AAAS as part of its “Force for Science” advocacy campaign. The campaign had been planned before the election, staff members said.
However, the button’s message had a more pointed political meaning for some. Whitney Cheung, an interdisciplinary research analyst at UC Davis who was wearing the button on Friday, directly linked the button’s message to the new administration.
“I think it is a stance [on Trump], at least for the people I’ve talked to,” she said. “People are being utterly blown away by the administration’s lack of taking evidence into account.”
Asking for evidence, she said, is “something that I’ve always thought was a given. I’m realizing now that perhaps it’s not.”
Neal Lane, a senior fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and a former science advisor to President Clinton, wore the button during a Friday panel focused on science policy for the new administration.
“Facts are facts,” he said in an interview after the panel. “The Trump administration, going by what was said during the campaign and what has been done so far, has not indicated that they are interested in evidence-based policy.”
Science and advocacy
While AAAS itself is a non-partisan organization, it has cautiously embraced scientists’ activism in the month since Trump took office. When scientists organized a “Stand Up for Science Rally” for Sunday afternoon, AAAS CEO Rush Holt pledged to help “make the march a success.”
Oreskes was one of the speakers at the rally in Boston’s Copley Square. “We did not politicize our science. We did not start this fight,” she told the crowd of hundreds of scientists and supporters. “Our science has been politicized by people who are motivated to reject facts because those facts conflict with their worldview, their political beliefs, or their economic self-interest.”
The conference’s panel about science policy for the new administration struck a similar tone, swinging between cautious optimism, concern, and even some gallows humor about the decisions the Trump administration will make.
“We seem to have a president that resists facts,” said John Holdren, President Obama’s science advisor, during the panel.
Kerri-Ann Jones, a former assistant secretary of state during the Obama administration, expressed particular concerns that no scientists had been named to the administration. “To be kind, I want to say [the new administration is] facing challenges getting started,” she said. “I think the system is really under stress right now.”
For attendees who wanted to go beyond wearing a button, Rosina Bierbaum, who served on Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, had no shortage of suggestions: tweet, write letters, serve on committees, apply for policy internships.
“Make your issues known,” she said.