Get out your lab coat?—?you might be Earth’s last hope.
It’s been a rough week for the scientific method. The new administration has laid its cards on the table, demanding that the EPA stop distributing money for climate cleanup, moving forward on the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines despite real concerns that they may not even be profitable, and banning multiple agencies from communicating with Congress or the public.
It’s fair to say that Donald Trump doesn’t have much appreciation for science.
This is in stark contrast to his predecessor. Obama pushed the sciences as a high priority for 8 years, and the Republican legislature generally supported it. The 2016 budget featured lots of pro-knowledge spending, including a huge chunk for the National Institutes of Health and a permanent tax credit for R&D costs.
The scientific community has no idea what to expect from a Trump administration. He talked about “unlocking the mysteries of space” in his inaugural address, no one (including him) seems to know what that means in practical terms. The primary focus of his rhetoric has revolved around cutting regulations and spending.
We’re already starting to see the second part of that come into play. All grants from the EPA have been frozen, and they may also face $815 million in budget cuts. The Department of Agriculture is no longer allowed to communicate with the public. And more cuts will surely come soon.
For scientists?—?and maybe for the rest of us, too?—?this is a disaster. The federal government spends about $140 billion a year on different types of research. That’s a small fraction of our overall budget but it makes a tremendous difference both in scientific progress and in creating jobs.
The Department of Energy and the Department of Commerce, for example, will reportedly see budgets cut. One physicist I spoke to?—?who wanted to remain anonymous?—?said such cuts could spell the end of neutron research in the US because those agencies run two important neutron scattering research facilities that help us figure out how to treat Parkinson’s, how to prevent milk from souring and other important things.
“Losing access to these facilities doesn’t just mean a loss of jobs, it also means entire of classes of experiments become impossible to perform," he said.
Spending on science has long been a boogeyman for conservative politicians. They relish in cherry-picking studies like one on Swedish massage for rabbits or another that studied aggression with battling mantis shrimp.
Republicans trot these studies out in front of taxpayers as examples of egregious waste. But focusing on goofy-sounding studies ignores the great truth of science: You don’t always find what you’re looking for, but you usually find something.
Data leads to more data, and eventually it becomes something useful.
Government-funded science is responsible for a staggering amount of things that make our world so pleasurable and efficient. If you don’t know what they are, check out The Center for American Progress’s exhaustive list of things government agencies have invented. The list includes the Human Genome Project, cancer therapies, water purifiers and the damn Internet you’re reading this on.
Investing in science works. Harry Truman knew that in 1950 when he created the National Science Foundation to support “fundamental research.” That refers to projects that don’t have immediate commercial applications but which help lay the groundwork for giant steps forward in our capacity as a nation. The NSF funded our observatories, discovered the hole in the ozone layer and more.
Probably the best example of the benefits of taxpayer-funded science is a little company called Google, which was founded in part thanks to a National Science Foundation graduate fellowship. That company alone spends billions on research every year and is a major mover in the US economy, employing nearly 60,000 people.
We’ve already started to see pushback from inside the government on Trump’s anti-science policies. Rogue social media operatives at government agencies have started tweeting facts about climate change?—?only to be rapidly shut down.
There is obviously a deep fear in the research world that the worst is yet to come. A growing group of scientists are planning to march on Washington soon to express their own dissatisfaction in the wake of the wildly successful Women’s March. That event, by its sheer size alone, humiliated our president into a frenzy of lying and deflection. Will the assembled IQ of these marchers shame the Combover-In-Chief into rethinking his policies?
Even if it doesn’t, here’s the good news: it’s easier than ever to take science into your own hands. We may not be able to match the billion-dollar budgets of government-funded research, but there are dozens of programs out there eager for your help.
You can start off with the Citizen Science Alliance, a collaborative project that recruits ordinary people to extract data from space photos, old ships’ logs and the general world around you. Even a few minutes of your time will help make progress on these studies.
As Trump moves to delete data from government repositories, individuals are working to create their own secure storage places. Data Refuge is one, dedicated to preserving climate science and other politically inconvenient research. There will no doubt be others. They can use both financial support and labor in backing up websites.
Trump is also targeting education funding. His inaugural address revealed him to be perhaps the only person in America who believes schools are “flush with cash.” Anybody who has spent any time in an under-funded, overcrowded public school knows how ludicrous that is. Volunteering in schools to help with experiments can help extend a love of science to the next generation. Trust me, they’d love to have you.
And, of course, you can take direct action yourself, contacting the administration with your support for science funding. You’re a taxpayer and you deserve to have your voice heard. Whether they will listen?—?especially considering the White House comment line has been shut down?—?is another story.
The very nature of democracy states that government power is in the hands of the people. Those hands don’t have to be holding ballots. They can be using test tubes, soldering irons and iPads. Since the days of the space race, America has been the world’s most inventive country. There’s no way one president is going to take that away.