The Role of Science in The Trump Era

Only science based on rigorous, peer-reviewed research designed with full freedom of inquiry will work.
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This week the Electoral College confirmed Donald Trump as our next president. The election of a demagogue profoundly threatens our nation’s ability to produce sound science. And it creates a particularly pressing problem because of the many things Trump’s election isn’t changing—such as how nature works, and our human fundamental needs for survival.

Humans depend on nature for food, clean water, and clean air. We rely on the environment to help us regulate climate and disease, and to support nutrient cycles and crop pollination. Trump and his new cabinet will endanger all of these ecological functions, by suppressing the use of science to inform decision-making about them.

Since the 1920s, ecologists have been pointing out that nature is at risk due to unfettered human population growth, rapacious exploitation of natural resources, and related environmental pollution. In the 1960s, in response to air and water quality crises that caused human deaths and species extinctions, we used best science to create the Environmental Protection Agency and passed a formidable suite of environmental laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, and the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Within one decade we began to see the fruits of these laws and their bedrock science. Species such as the bald eagle returned from extinction’s edge; air in cities became safer to breathe. Yet, because of our increasing demands on nature, these powerful laws have been unable to measurably slow climate change.

<p>Bald Eagles in the Mist</p>

Bald Eagles in the Mist

Cristina Eisenberg

Science is our most powerful tool to build on the legacy of these laws and craft public policy to slow and mitigate climate change. A warming global climate is leading to unprecedented human health and environmental threats, such as extinction over the next 100 years of up to 50 percent of species currently living on our planet. The only way to fully address these threats is by allowing scientists to conduct research effectively and transparently.

<p>Polar Bear Mother and Cub Waiting for the Ice to Form</p>

Polar Bear Mother and Cub Waiting for the Ice to Form

Cristina Eisenberg

Throughout his campaign, Trump sought support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument. Trump’s agenda to “make America great” includes slashing funding for science and universities, adopting a formal platform of climate-change denial, intensifying natural resources exploitation, weakening environmental laws, and reducing all kinds of diversity. Pundits point out that Trump’s atavistic demagoguery in assembling his cabinet creates a strategic assault on science. To that end, some of his nominees’ regressionary personal philosophies push the boundaries of legitimacy and directly counter the missions of the agencies they will be leading.

A tour of Trump’s challenges to science begins with his selection of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A party to at least 13 lawsuits attacking the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts who refers to himself on his website as the “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda,” Pruitt is hardly supportive of natural resources policy checks and balance.

Trump’s top nominee for Secretary of Energy, former Texas governor Rick Perry, lacks the academic background to enable him to understand the essential role of science in maintaining US nuclear security. In sharp contrast to his predecessors, who were PhD physicists, he holds a bachelor’s degree in Animal Science. Yet he will take the lead in deciding how we manage our nuclear arsenal. Additionally, the Trump Transition Team’s intrusive questioning of Department of Energy scientists and contractors creates an ominous environment where it’s unsafe for scientists to use the term “climate change.”

Secretary of State nominee Exxon chief executive Rex W. Tillerson has a background in engineering and close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The billion-dollar Russian energy contracts brokered by Tillerson engender a huge conflict of interest. He’s persistently dismissed the severity of climate change, yet will be our top government official negotiating our engagement in international climate-change policies, such as the Paris Agreement.

In a field populated by serious contenders like Sarah Palin, Trump’s selection of Representative Ryan Zinke (R-MT) as Secretary of the Interior offers some hope in an otherwise bleak landscape. While supporting US energy independence, Zinke acknowledges that climate change must be addressed. He brings to the presidential cabinet a centrist, Roosevelt-inspired conservation philosophy. A pragmatist who favors sustainable natural resources extraction, he also supports Native American water rights and keeping federal lands intact.

Why does science matter so much in the Trump era? What is at stake? Put simply, according to ecologist Paul Ehrlich, our survival as a species is on the line. He calls out escalating indicators of global collapse such as climate disruption, environmental toxicity, the extinction crisis, soil destruction, famine, and pandemic outbreaks. Ignoring these signals is tantamount to driving civilization toward collapse. Supporting sound science will help us find solutions.

Science provides our best hope for the future of life on Earth. Indeed, since Aristotle’s time, leaders have seen science as the sharpest weapon any civilization can wield to improve their survival. But today, only science based on rigorous, peer-reviewed research designed with full freedom of inquiry will work. Linked to our constitutionally mandated freedom of speech, our freedom to do science is part of what truly makes America great.

Even the most conservative global science organizations are so troubled by the many challenges Trump brings to scientific integrity that they’ve been speaking out. Some have been urging the scientific community to be more vocal and frank about scientific issues. For example, recently more than 2,300 scientists (including 22 Nobel Peace Prize laureates) wrote and signed an open letter to president-elect Trump.

Beyond the scientific community, non-scientists can do even more to help defend science. As members of a democratic society, we can ask Congress to maintain freedom of scientific inquiry and diversity in science. Specifically, we can comment publicly on and vote to support environmental laws. We can urge the president to hire a national science advisor as well as other scientists with appropriate credentials in ecology, physics, and engineering to fill key posts in his administration.

<p>Earthwatch Citizen Scientist Volunteers</p>

Earthwatch Citizen Scientist Volunteers

Cristina Eisenberg

We can become more directly involved by actually participating in science. A variety of organizations enable scientific public engagement (called citizen science) such as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the National Audubon Society, and Earthwatch Institute.

Whether you are a scientist or a non-scientist, all of these strategies are about defending science and putting it into action. Now more than ever, science is our best hope for the future. And now more than ever, science needs you.

* * *

Learn more about carnivore conservation by reading The Carnivore Way: Coexisting with and Conserving North America’s Predators, and The Wolf’s Tooth: Keystone Predators, Trophic Cascades, and Biodiversity by Dr. Cristina Eisenberg. Learn more about large carnivore ecology by joining Cristina afield on her Earthwatch research expedition, Restoring Fire, Wolves, and Bison to the Canadian Rockies.

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