he student-run Harvard Science Policy Group makes a pilgrimage each year to Washington, D.C., to meet with scientists who work in and around the federal government. The goal of the trip is to help students understand how science informs policy and to learn about related career options for PhD-level scientists. In the past, the group has met with scientists throughout the executive and legislative branches.
When we started to organize this year’s trip, just a week after President Trump’s inauguration, we weren’t sure what to expect. At that time there were rumors of a gag order at the Environmental Protection Agency and mass departures at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Given the president’s anti-science campaign rhetoric, which has continued since he took office, we thought that government scientists might reply to our emails by saying, “Sorry, we can’t meet with you. We are too busy looking for new jobs.”
We feared that the trip might be nothing more than an anthropological lesson in how a country previously renowned for its scientific prowess began its decline.
But we were wrong to worry — mostly. At least for now, science is still alive and well in our nation’s capital.
At the Department of Homeland Security, we met with an immunologist who leads the department’s effort to counter bioterrorism and infectious outbreaks. At the Department of State, a molecular biologist explained her work on the emerging foreign policy implications of the CRISPR gene-editing tool; a physicist described his previous contributions to a Russian nuclear treaty in conjunction with the Department of Energy. A neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health told us her story of working with Vice President Joe Biden to get the cancer moonshot off the ground. Scientists at the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority offered examples of lifesaving drugs and disaster planning that would not have existed without their expertise.
We also met with scientists at think tanks and nonpartisan organizations. At the Pew Charitable Trusts, microbiologists told us about developing optimal strategies to combat antibiotic resistance and a veterinarian described ways to ensure the safety of imported foods. We were briefed on active and vibrant science programs at the Government Accountability Office and the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. These sorts of organizations may be even more important now than they were before Election Day because they explicitly work on challenges that affect everyone, Republicans and Democrats alike.
Most of the scientists we met were surprisingly optimistic despite the recent political earthquake. In the weeks before we arrived, the president had issued a hiring freeze and proposed a budget calling for sharp reductions in non-defense spending, including science research. Still, few of the scientists we met with seemed overly concerned about their jobs in part because support for funding science is one of the remaining bipartisan issues in Washington. Members of Congress are also averse to cutting funds that support jobs and universities in their districts. That reality hasn’t changed with a new president.
The mantra we heard over and over again — the president proposes and Congress disposes — seemed to allay the fears of the scientists we met, at least for the time being.
One place definitely reeling from the presidential transition is the OSTP. Though the office is mandated by Congress to exist, the president isn’t required to follow its recommendations. And some conservatives have called for the office to be eliminated.
We were warned before the meeting that the office was still in a period of transition and that its staff members wouldn’t be able to talk about specific policies. The OSTP scientists who are carryovers from the Obama administration fondly recalled their office increasing to a record size and influence under President Obama. They described the rapport their previous boss, John Holdren, had with Obama. Trump, on the other hand, has yet to name a new OSTP director.
The OSTP scientists were clearly part of a downsized group. Many held multiple titles they were still getting used to. But their devotion to science policy was unshakable. When asked by a student why they decided to stay at OSTP, one of the scientists responded, “Because I believe in the work that we do.”
That was a common sentiment of scientists throughout the federal government.
There is no doubt that the new administration has changed certain priorities of federal agencies. At NASA, the scientists we met purposely avoided using the words “climate change” while describing their satellites that scrutinize the snowpack in the mountains of drought-stricken California. Scientists at the EPA have gone to the media to voice concerns that their mission to “protect human health and the environment” is under siege. But it doesn’t seem like science will simply be cast aside by the Trump administration. Scientists perform too many critical functions within the federal government that aren’t amenable to the whims of ideology.
I and the other students came away from this trip feeling that science is still very much alive in the nation’s capital. Our encounters with scientists working in and around government made many of us consider applying for science policy fellowships and possibly working in this realm when we complete our PhDs. Scientists of all stripes are needed in and around government now more than ever, even if some in Washington aren’t listening to them.
Cory Gerlach is a PhD candidate in Biological Sciences in Public Health and the Therapeutics graduate program at Harvard University, and helps lead the Harvard Science Policy Group.