In his first weeks in office, President Trump has begun to deliver on campaign promises that are a radical break from several American values. Many of these actions — on immigration, climate change, and public health — pose a grave threat to America’s global leadership and integrity in science.
Some see science as a collection of static facts. I see it as a process of ceaseless curiosity and questioning — the method by which we observe and generate evidence about the world and use new evidence to constantly improve our knowledge.
Fear of speaking and debating openly on controversial issues and inquiry is antithetical to science. So it has been chilling for me to listen to the fear expressed by medical students, resident physicians, faculty members, and administrators engendered by Trump’s actions.
I’ve heard medical students say they are worried about speaking out because they might be branded as “activists” by residency programs. Faculty members worry about how their opposition to the Trump agenda may be perceived by philanthropists who fund their work. Administrators fear overstepping the line in response to Trump and struggle to balance supporting their staff’s concerns about how new policies affect their colleagues and families while avoiding perceived political conflict.
The fear of losing funding for science is real. Scientific institutions depend upon federal funding. That’s entirely appropriate, since science is so deeply tied to the national interest. For example, one of the institutions where I work, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, receives more than $300 million annually from the National Institutes of Health. So when Trump threatens to remove federal funding to universities and cities in retaliation for disagreeing with his policies, scientific institutions listen closely.
The president also has deep business networks that include private funders of science. Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, is but one example of an extraordinarily generous and influential philanthropist of Boston-area biomedicine. He is also a vocal supporter and friend of the president. Even if Kraft has made no indications of allowing his political allegiance with the White House to affect his support of biomedicine, the fear of repercussions to resistance against Trump are understandable and enter into the minds of scientists and administrators whose work and institutions Kraft supports.
The danger of scientists succumbing to fear poses a great threat. Science flourishes where ideas are shared openly and critically, where society values and funds discovery, and where research can be conducted without political interference. Science and democracy are inextricable partners in the betterment of humanity.
The United States emerged as the global leader in science during the 20th century in large part because government, industry, and philanthropy invested heavily in science; immigration policies helped welcome the world’s top scientists; democracy fostered open debate; and politics for the most part left science alone. Notable exceptions to the latter, like the denial of tobacco’s harmful effects on health and the delayed response to AIDS, were tragic and costly.
Supporters of science must show strength, not fear, in the face of the president’s anti-science policies. We must apply the same creativity and boldness that we value in research to maintaining freedom and democracy. Small actions of resistance at the local level, within our own institutions, can collectively build a pro-science movement.
One compelling example: A courageous group of Harvard Medical School students challenged Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a Harvard teaching hospital, about holding a fundraiser at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla. Given the president’s persistent business conflicts of interest and the administration’s recent anti-science and anti-democratic stances, the students, along with nearly 3,000 signers, called for the event to be shifted from what Trump calls the “winter White House” to a neutral location.
Although Dana-Farber went ahead with its plans, the students’ efforts have sparked productive conversations at the highest levels of the Dana-Farber administration, and, I hope, will help push the institution to take a more proactive stance to defend its staff and the integrity of science.
I’m also seeing quieter but no less effective actions. I’ve spoken with several resident physicians about their conversations with leaders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital about changing the hospital’s mission statement to be more forceful about its commitment to tolerance, social justice, and equity. Several of my physician colleagues are now learning about community organizing, a skill not typically thought of as part of our profession. When an important climate change and health conference at the Centers for Disease Control was cancelled by the Trump administration, a group of academics, including several at Harvard, stepped up to reschedule it.
The upcoming science march in April, likely to be the largest mass mobilization for science in history, won’t be quiet. Instead, it will offer scientists and other citizens an opportunity to be vocal about our support for a well-funded, independent scientific community For those in our community who have been concerned yet silenced by fear, this is an opportunity to step up, speak up, and protect scientific values.
With each threat to democracy, freedom, and science, citizens and scientists will need to respond with greater conviction and speed. While recent court victories regarding the immigration ban are reassuring about the limits of executive power, hospitals will need to be even more prepared to defend their patients and staff from federal overreach. Academic departments will need to reconsider how they finance research that is deemed politically inconvenient in the face of potential losses of federal funds for it.
Biomedical institutions talk about the three-part mission: clinical service, teaching, and research. They should add a fourth — community and policy advocacy — and integrate them as strong parts of their missions within the laws that govern 501(c)(3) nonprofit institutions.
I am confident that scientists across the country will continue to conduct world-changing research and develop innovations that advance our understanding of the world, fuel our economy, and make us a stronger, safer nation. To do so, though, we must refuse to allow fear to compromise the critical thought, open dialogue, and relentless curiosity that form the heart of the scientific endeavor. We must continue to resist.
Duncan Maru, MD, is a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Boston Children’s Hospital and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.