March for Science: Protesting Trump’s Contempt for Evidence and the Environment

by Grant Macdonald

22 April 2017

Takver, Flickr

I am a glaciologist and PhD student at the University of Chicago. Today, as the Trump administration demonstrates a clear disdain for the value of science, I will march to celebrate and defend it.

America’s scientists have endured stagnating funding, neglected science education in schools and the exhibiting of an actual snowball in congress as evidence against climate change. In last year’s presidential debates, climate change did not receive a single mention. Given that fact, we can be forgiven for harbouring limited expectations of our politicians’ ability to grasp the importance of science. However, the election of a president who lives by alternative facts and once called climate change a hoax perpetrated by “the Chinese” has sent shockwaves through the scientific community.

It is for this reason that supporters of science will today march in Washington DC and at satellite marches across the US and the world.  Students, professors, teachers and people who value health, progress and their environment will march to show their government that they believe in science, scientists and the role of evidence in policy-making. Trump has awoken a sense of activism in a sector of the population that is often inclined to stay on the sidelines. The organisers of the march argue that “Budget cuts, censorship of researchers, disappearing datasets, and threats to dismantle government agencies harm us all, putting our health, food, air, water, climate, and jobs at risk” and have the backing of countless institutions. Many marches will culminate in expos, where scientists will share their research and enthusiasm with the public in a festival of facts, ideas and scientific creativity.

Under attack. 

The Trump administration offered an early taste of its attitude towards science when the transition team submitted a request to the Energy Department for a list of individuals who had worked on the issue of climate change. This was soon followed by the appointment of fossil fuel magnate Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, while serial suer of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, was appointed head of the EPA.  Since then, the outlook has not improved.

When Trump announced his first budget, it came as no surprise that key scientific institutions were dragged straight to the chopping block. NASA (surely the sexiest of public institutions) escaped with just a one percent cut, though Earth observation (‘bo-ring’) took a hit at the expense of deep space research. However, the EPA, National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Department of Energy suffered cuts of 31%, 18% and 6%, respectively. Cuts to the EPA will weaken countless programs and have wide-ranging consequences that disproportionately affect minorities and the poor. As just one example, the cuts will diminish the ability of the agency to monitor and address lead in drinking water. Research at medical schools will suffer from the attack on the NIH and the Department of Energy will lose its Advanced Research Projects Agency, which carries out high risk/high reward research. The budget will also eliminate the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s $73 million Sea Grant initiative, which seeks to conserve coastal, marine and Great Lake’s resources. The fact that such neglect of America’s coastlines could see Trump’s very own Mar-a-Lago resort underwater by the end of the century offers little comfort.

In an executive order signed on March 28, Trump showed a total disregard for the significance of the scientific consensus on climate change by mandating a review of the Clean Power Plan, an Obama initiative that is fundamental to reducing the US’s carbon emissions. Destruction of the policy will not bring back coal mining jobs as Trump promised, but it will reward his friends in the fossil fuel industry while crippling any chance of the US meeting its Paris Climate Agreement obligations. No doubt this will empower agitators against climate action across the world. Furthermore, rules that govern greenhouse gases under both the Clean Power Plan and Clean Air Act rely on a 2009 ruling by the EPA that greenhouse gases are pollutants, which pose a risk to human health. Naturally, Trump’s EPA chief opposed this ruling and can be expected to return to the issue soon.

Perhaps more worrying than the administration’s enthusiasm for taking a scythe to science budgets is its apparent indifference for evidence and expertise. Scott Pruitt rejects scientific expertise when he threatens to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement or refuses to ban insecticide despite health warnings from EPA scientists. The Trump team applies the same contempt for evidence to policymaking that it does to a 3am tweetstorm tirade. It seems likely that it is this attitude, rather than incompetence or a thorough search that is responsible for the scores of still-vacant desks at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

An act of resistance. 

Some scientists argue that politics is not their arena. ‘Keep hold of the pipettes and put down the placards, lest our science be corrupted by its politicisation’. If science was ever free of politicisation, it was before the CEO of ExxonMobil was made Secretary of State, before a leading advocate against the EPA began leading it and before the administration began deleting Arctic data. Some will scoff at the point of marching against a stubborn administration, but previous demonstrations have shown the importance of signalling resistance to the wider establishment. While organisers face legitimate questions over a lack of diversity in the organisation of the march, it has already been successful by compelling scientists, often heavily fragmented by sub-discipline, to get out of the lab and onto the streets.

Together, we resist the government’s preference for ignorance and fossil fuel profits over evidence and clean water. It is essential that this is not just a single day of action; that between chants, science supporters plan their next steps of resistance against an administration that has barely begun. It is crucial that we recognise the many fronts we fight on, that attacks on undocumented people, women, Muslims, black people, the LGBT community and welfare-recipients are attacks on scientists. Furthermore, it is key that we make clear that marching for science means marching for everyone, for our education, our medicine, our air, our future climate and the integrity of our democracy in an age of alternative facts.






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