Julia Fine was all set for the next chapter. She’d packed her bags and moved out of her apartment, and was days away from making the drive from Pennsylvania to Utah, where she planned to start work as a postdoctoral scholar with the Agricultural Research Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research agency.
“I had made all the plans,” said Fine, a bee researcher who recently completed her doctorate in entomology at Pennsylvania State University. “I was supposed to start as soon as possible.”
But on Jan. 23, just three days after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the 28-year-old researcher got a perturbing phone call. The president had ordered a sweeping employment freeze for the federal government. Her position at the research service — and the funding that was going to allow her to continue her research into why honeybees are dying at abnormally high rates ― could be in jeopardy.
“I was told that my position was frozen for an indefinite amount of time,” Fine said.
A USDA spokesperson told The Huffington Post the agency could not comment on how the freeze might affect individual researchers. When pressed on how the order had affected employees at the USDA, the spokesperson sent this memorandum about the directive, which outlined guidelines and possible exemptions. As of Sunday, Fine said she remained “confused” as to whether she could qualify for any of the exemptions.
Much is still unknown about the hiring freeze and how it will affect federal agencies. It has caused widespread confusion among federal employers and employees alike. Fine is just one of many scientists, engineers, nurses and others whose jobs, promised before Trump took office, are now in question. And her story is only one example of how the freeze could affect not just these individuals, but our developing understanding of the world.
Fine was the lead author of a study published in the journal Nature last month that detailed how a common pesticide additive, organosilicone surfactants, could be killing honeybees.
Organosilicone surfactants are “inert” chemicals, meaning they’re used in agriculture and elsewhere to enhance the efficacy of active ingredients, Fine explained. “You’ve probably heard a lot about the effects of active ingredients [in pesticides] on bees and other organisms, but most people are not aware that they are only a relatively small fraction of the chemicals being used in the environment,” she said. “We started looking at the effects of inerts on honeybees because there is a growing body of research showing that not only do they enhance the toxic effects of other chemicals on non-target organisms, they sometimes exert their own.”
For their study, Fine and her colleagues fed organosilicone surfactants to honeybee larvae while simultaneously exposing them to viruses found in nearly all hives. They found that when the larvae were exposed to both the chemical and the viruses together, they died at a higher rate than the bees exposed to either the viruses or the chemical alone.
Exactly what is causing mass die-offs ― not just of honeybees, but of other native bee species as well, such as the endangered rusty-patched bumblebee ― is a question vexing scientists and beekeepers alike. Between 2015 and 2016, the U.S. lost 44 percent of its honeybee colonies. Researchers have pointed to viruses, parasites and pesticide use as possible culprits, but a definitive answer has eluded them.
Fine said her research could be extremely consequential for both bee health and agriculture, since farmers rely on bees as pollinators.
“We are very close to being able to make sound recommendations to growers that will prevent the effects we observed in the laboratory from occurring in the field,” she said. “This research could help increase food security.”
“So many crops that we depend upon require insect pollination,” she went on. “This is not basic research ― it’s very applied research. It’ll have impacts on the economy and on our access to food.”
But Fine still has to conduct more research before she can make recommendations, which she was planning to do through the USDA postdoc.
Specifically, she said the precise amount of organosilicone surfactants in the environment still has be measured to understand just how much of it honeybees are being exposed to.
“We also need to examine their effects in other species, including other pollinators,” Fine said. “We know that native pollinators can also be affected by honeybee viruses, and are also likely to be exposed to organosilicone surfactants. Because of the declines in native species like the rusty-patched bumblebee, we need to consider that these chemicals may also affect them.”
With no other plans and her travel already set up, Fine decided to make the drive to Utah anyway, despite not knowing what would happen when she got there. She arrived last week and has been looking into other possible sources of funding for her research, while hoping that Trump lifts the hiring freeze.
“I’m still in limbo,” she told HuffPost, speaking on the phone from a friend’s home in Utah, where she’s living for now. Most of her belongings are still in storage, and her research is on indefinite hold.
A ‘War On Scientists’
Trump’s first two weeks in office have been tough for the country’s scientists.
Like the federal hiring freeze, Trump’s executive order restricting travel from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for 90 days has affected thousands of scientists.
A number of researchers have told HuffPost they are considering leaving the United States because of the uncertainty about their visas. Over the weekend, two associate professors at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth were detained at Boston’s Logan International Airport. A Yale professor of electrical engineering and computer science was separated from his wife and newborn, who had gone to Iran to visit relatives. An Iranian assistant professor of religion at Middlebury College said he was unsure if he would be able to return to the U.S. after leaving the country to conduct research.
Several prominent universities and colleges have expressed concerns about the travel restrictions, and the Association of American Medical Colleges warned that the restrictions are compromising its ability to attract top talent from around the world.
“I fear we’re going to see a war on scientists inside the government,” Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said last week at an American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting.
The ‘First Anti-Science President’
Following Trump’s win in November, the Science Advisory Board, an international community of scientific and medical experts, conducted a survey of more than 3,200 scientists worldwide to gauge their reactions.
More than 70 percent of the scientists predicted the results of the election would have a negative impact on research and science in the U.S. More than 70 percent also agreed with the statement that Trump would be the “first anti-science president we have ever had.”
Trump is a vocal climate change denier, and many of his Cabinet choices have been lambasted as “anti-science.” Scott Pruitt, Trump’s nominee to head the EPA, has sued the agency 13 times and has expressed skepticism over global warming. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Trump’s choice to lead the Energy Department, is also a climate change denier who supported teaching both evolution and creationist theory in Texas schools.
Jeff Ruch, executive director of the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, told The Hill last week that scientists are bracing for more clashes with the federal government going forward.
“We asked some environmental employees and one said, ‘We’re in the clown car to crazy town,’” Ruch said. “We view this as sort of the opening act of what’s going to be a long and bloody drama.”