Donald Trump, as we have all become painfully aware, is one of the least curious people to ever hold the Presidency. One the biggest and most disturbing of the many lacunae we see emerging in the transition is in the domain of science. Here he appears to be a total dunce as evidenced by his questioning of anthropogenic climate change and his belief that vaccinations can cause autism.
A broad-based set of fears has settled down on the scientific community as evidenced by the several dozen articles in Scientific American worrying about what may come after Trump takes office. They range from worries about undermining STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education, supporting creationist teaching, cutting funds for stem cell research, reducing efforts to counter climate change and generally putting the budgets of agencies like NASA, NIH, NIMH , NSF and others on the chopping block.
Disturbingly, neither Trump or anyone on his transition team has even discussed the issue of the Science Adviser or entertained candidates for the position. The international science journal Nature is particularly concerned by this lack of focus.
As a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science I’m deeply worried about the lack of interest in science and science policy. The AAAS’s journal Science, generally regarded (along with Nature) as the most prestigious in the world, has had a series of editorials expressing the deep concerns of scientists from all areas.
These essays have an eerie quality to them. The authors are trying their very best to be diplomatic, to not draw the anger that Trump famously unleashes on anyone who criticizes him and, importantly, to not piss-off the persons whom Trump will appoint to run the agencies that fund their research. This kind of deep anxiety is something I’ve never experienced before. I’m glad I’m retired and no longer need Federal grants to fund my research.
Now if you’re not a scientist you might ask, why is this a problem? Why are we all so openly worried — especially when most of the lay public isn’t. It’s not uncommon these days to hear people ask, “What’s so important about doing science anyway?” And “Don’t scientists get things wrong all the time?” To a scientist, these are odd questions to ask but when I hear them I understand. I realize that they are rarely being asked out of annoyance or anger. It’s almost always the result of ignorance. Here’s the truth about science and its role in our lives.
Every single advance in our quality of life that has contributed to our health, longevity, convenience and social functioning has come from advances in science. All of it. All our buildings are large and safe because of advances in materials science and their applications in architecture and construction. All our medicines and surgical procedures and health care delivery systems are the direct products of the findings and discoveries of the bio-chemical and medical sciences. Our rapid advances in communications, computer technology, communications, satellite-supported systems, cell phones, tablets are all products that came from scientific theory and empirical findings.
Our understanding of society, how it operates, why and how complex cultural factors play out in real time are derived from pure research in psychology, sociology and political science. Our ability to guide economic systems, to make fine-tuned decisions about debt, deficits, interest rates, monetary supply all emerged from micro- and macroeconomic models and data collection.
I could go on and on and …. I could look at roads, bridges, how courts and the justice systems operate, at the stunning discoveries in genetics, epidemiology, agriculture, animal husbandry, botany, birth control, modern medical techniques like MRI, PET and non-invasive surgery, in forestry, geology, education, child-rearing, GPS systms, land-use principles, weather prediction, mining, mineral extraction, pharmaceutical advances, energy production not to mention policing, fire prevention and fire fighting, the military, jet planes, nuclear weaponry, transportation over water, land and air, techniques for controlling pollution, reducing smog and giving us clean air and water.
In short, everything. Every blessed advance in society, every improvement in the quality of our lives, every increase in our health and well-being has come from scientific theory, scientific research and the translation of scientific knowledge into applications that improve the lives of everyone.
Do scientists get things wrong from time to time? Of course. It’s the nature of the process. As you home in on the truth, on reality you take many different paths, some lead nowhere, others reveal errors made in the past. But the system, the “doing” of science is a self-correcting process. So long as you have to make contact with the data, the findings and the numbers you constantly move closer and closer to the right answers. This is how science operates and this is why it has been so brilliantly successful.
To sit back and watch a President Elect pay not even lip service to science is disturbing but to have one who has derided science and scientific research is downright terrifying. And don’t get me started on some of the morons in Congress.