“We’re here, we’re wet, we’re very, very upset.”
A woman in front of me clutches a sign depicting the logo of the broadway hit Hamilton. The treasury secretary holds a needle high above his head and cries “I am not throwing away my shot” in support of vaccinations. She yanks her hat further down over her ears as if the fabric weren’t already soaked through. My waterlogged boots squelch with every step and my drenched shirt sticks uncomfortably to my skin. Water drips out of my hair and into my ears, but it does nothing to dim the most desperate chants of the crowd.
“Science not silence!”
The statement released by the White House on Earth Day 2017, while we were splashing through downtown D.C. included no specific mention of the March for Science, but did acknowledge that American citizens were “rightly grateful” for the nation’s natural resources and had an obligation to protect them. While the statement also affirmed the Trump administration’s dedication to scientific inquiry and “robust debate”, it seemed at odds with the budget proposed by the president in March. This proposal, covering only discretionary spending, would have cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by around 31%, followed closely by the Agriculture and State Departments.
The worldwide success of the Women’s March in October, which drew an estimated half million people to Washington D.C. alone, prompted the creation of numerous other events and Facebook pages addressing issues that American citizens feared would be threatened by the incoming administration. Organizers of The March for Science insisted that their goal was to call on “political leaders and policymakers to enact evidence-based policies in the public interest.” The event quickly gained traction with sponsorships from hundreds of organizations including the American Psychological Association, National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE), American Astronomical Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
Every single day in the months leading up to the March for Science, the page gained followers in the form of everyday citizens, physicists, entomologists, biologists, and surgeons alike. It didn’t take long for these members to begin posting with the leading lines of “I’m marching for” or “Why I’m marching” as they shared their personal stories. Stories of how scientific research has affected their lives and careers, and in many cases how it has saved their lives or the lives of their loved ones.
At the March I met with Caitlyn Patullo, a recent Environmental Science graduate with a minor in Economics from Ithaca College in New York. She recalls being concerned for her own future when headlines on facebook proclaimed that the new president proposed cutting the budgets of several government agencies including the EPA, NASA, and the NIH. When I asked her about what had pushed her to drive south for the weekend and rent out a bed at a somewhat questionable hostel on the outskirts of the National Mall, she mentioned that the reputation of the scientific community in the United States has been a concern of hers for some time. “In October of last year I attended a conference with my Research Honor Society in Atlanta. One of our keynote speakers lectured about the value of communicating science to the public, and that talk stuck with me. It just seems ridiculous to me that people need all of this convincing that science is important.”
Caitlyn has accepted a position in North Carolina in the Office of Research and Development under the National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory of the Environmental Protection Agency. Her research will investigate the toxicity of bromodichloromethane and its use in the treatment of drinking water. It is believed that the chemical may be connected to bladder cancer in residents, and either proving or disproving a link could potentially save lives.
This is one small example of the type of research conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency, whose mission statement is to protect human health and the environment: two concepts irrevocably tied together.
On April 29th, to mark President Trump’s first 100 days in office, the People’s Climate March drew thousands back to Washington DC only a week after the March for Science. Many made the journey to protest roll backs of climate protection actions enacted by the Obama administration. Of her experience there, Sharon Stone, a high school librarian of Minerva, New York, said that “As a child I did not understand that this was considered political and now as an adult I still have a difficult time understanding why doing the right thing is oftentimes considered being political. [Going to the People’s Climate March] was the right thing to do.”
Now, it is a little more than two months on from the March for Science. Around the world, including here in Tallahassee, as well as Fairbanks, Boston, Colorado Springs, and London, people are still wondering if their voices have truly resounded in the halls of the United States Capitol Building whose steps they threw down their homemade signs upon in April.
In the first week of May, headlines that read “Congress ignores Trump” ignited hope. The budget passed by both houses of Congress last week actually included a $2 billion increase for the NIH for the 2017 fiscal year (after the Trump administration proposed cutting the department’s funding by nearly $1 billion). The budget, now subject to the Appropriations Committee, also included several other boosts for scientific offices, including a 1.9% budget increase for NASA, maintaining the agency’s Office of Education at its 2016 levels.
This is not to say that science received an equal boost across the board. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sees an overall 1% budget cut, while its Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research receives a 3.5% increase. All of these intricacies makes it impossible to synthesis every increase and every cutit in order to form a consensus on the future of science funding in the United States.
The results may not be ideal, but many scientists are just glad that their respective fields were not eliminated entirely overnight. Perhaps an irrational fear, but one decried by professionals and professors after the frankly frightening rhetoric (as if there were any kind) coming from the new administration, which, among other things promised to stop wasting American taxpayer money on efforts to address issues like climate change.
The budget proposed by Congress does not guarantee that the United States scientific institution is safe from future obstacles and gutting. Concerns were raised when Scott Pruitt was first nominated to the post of Administrator of the EPA, and several times since then such as when the former Oklahoma lawmaker stated that he wasn’t sure if carbon dioxide was a contributor to global warming. The Washington Post reported on May 8th that reorganization of several committees within the EPA would take place under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Under the guise of initiating a new approach to the administration of the organization in the interest of “restoring trust in the Department’s decision-making”; this review froze the Bureau of Land Management’s 38 resource advisory councils, as well as other panels focused on a variety of scientific issues including the threat of invasive species and the science technical advisory panel for Alaska’s North Slope. Meanwhile Scott Pruitt decided to replace half of the advisors on one of the organization’s critical boards. The Board of Scientific Counselors is of particular concern to critics of the move, since it advises on whether research done by the EPA has integrity and addresses crucial scientific questions.
Since the inauguration concerns have also been raised over changes in the representation of scientific issues and the dissemination of information. In addition to worrisome appointments such as Scott Pruitt to the position of Administrator to the EPA and Sam Clovis to that of under-secretary of research for the United States Department of Agriculture, the White House’s page on climate change disappeared the day of President Trump’s swearing-in.
Today, when you Google the terms “white house” and “climate change” together, the first result from whitehouse.gov is a page entitled “An America First Energy Plan” which condemns past energy regulations and reaffirms President Trump’s commitment to something called “clean coal” which many climate scientists will tell you is neither cost effective nor truly clean. Furthermore, the Environmental Protection Agency’s webpage aimed at teaching school children about climate change has recently been sidelined. In response to public outcry, the EPA announced that the website was undergoing changes to reflect the new administration’s priorities, but activists remain steadily apprehensive.
Shawn Otto, co-creator of The Science Debate and author of The War on Science, enumerates what he views as a fundamental misunderstanding of what science is. A narrative that has been espoused in our age of post-modernist politics is that science is one way of knowing, the way different religions may provide different filters for viewing the world. But science is more than this. Science is a method for discovering how the natural world works.
It affects our lives and the lives our children whether or not we “believe” in it. I saw several signs during the march decrying that science was not a political issue. That it was not partisan, and it was not a conspiracy. I would be inclined to agree that the process of finding facts shouldn’t be “political” in the sense that they should not be skewed or omitted to favor one class of individuals over another. However, science is inherently political. Science is a method for collecting knowledge and for learning about the natural world. Science is knowledge is power is always politics.
“The best thing you can really do sometimes is work to stay aware of what’s happening,” Says Patullo, “it affects all of us, and if a handful of people with anti-science agendas get to decide everything like what research is conducted, it not gonna be great.”