As the Culture Wars Flare Amid the Pandemic, a Call to Speak ‘Science to Power’

A growing number of National Academy of Science members sign a statement decrying the Trump administration’s “denigration of scientific expertise."

Jul 20, 2020
Medical workers from New York handle test samples at temporary testing site for Covid-19 in Houston, Texas. Credit: Go Nakamura/Getty Images

Medical workers from New York handle test samples at temporary testing site for Covid-19 in Houston, Texas. Credit: Go Nakamura/Getty Images

More than a thousand of the nation's top scientists say it's time to speak "science to power," as Covid-19 deaths top 141,000 nationally and cases continue to rise in 43 states. The scientists are calling on policymakers to restore evidence-based decision-making—especially when it comes to managing life-and-death challenges like the global pandemic and climate change. 

More than 1,240 National Academy of Science members have now registered their personal concern about the Trump administration's denigration of science.

The effort began when 375 academy members signed an open letter in 2016 warning that then-candidate Trump's threatened withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement would harm American credibility and leadership. Hundreds more added their signatures to a statement posted online in 2018, after President Trump set the withdrawal in motion. 

 

And several hundreds more members have signed the statement in recent weeks, speaking out as public health experts warning about surging Covid-19 cases have been attacked for perpetrating a "hoax" and overstating the seriousness of the disease. 

Climate scientist Benjamin D. Santer helped initiate the open letter in 2016 and fielded signatures this spring as the scientific community grew increasingly alarmed about the Trump administration's handling of climate change and the pandemic. 

At a time when a cohesive and science-based approach is crucial, Santer said, the Trump White House has doubled down on attacking the government's most prominent infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, over his advice to respond more aggressively to Covid-19.

"It's a teachable moment," said Santer, who works at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, one of the nation's 17 national laboratories. "And the hope is that the lesson learned from the last few months is that science matters. Ignore it at your peril."

The "Statement to Restore Science-Based Policy in Government" was posted by NAS members calling themselves Scientists for Science-Based Policy in 2018. Now, the signatures represent 43 percent of academy members, all of whom emphasize they are speaking for themselves and not for NAS or their institutions. 

The online statement notes that the United States is the only nation to have left the Paris Agreement. 

"The decision to withdraw is symptomatic of a larger problem: the Trump Administration's denigration of scientific expertise and harassment of scientists," the statement says. "The dismissal of scientific evidence in policy formulation has affected wide areas of the social, biological, environmental and physical sciences."  

Since then, the trend has accelerated. At the Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, a new "scientific transparency" policy threatens to undermine the foundational studies supporting health-based air-pollution regulations. And across government, in agency policies, documents and web pages, mentions of climate change have been scratched.

The White House and its office of Science and Technology Policy did not respond to requests for comment. 

Observing the nation's disorganized pandemic response, scientists have grown increasingly concerned about attacks from the Trump administration.  

There have been reports about advice from epidemiologists being overridden, and infectious disease professionals have been fired. In recent days, Fauci became the subject of a right-wing cartoon shared by a presidential adviser and of a denigrating newspaper commentary by Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro, who said Fauci was "wrong about everything."

Santer said infectious disease scientists trying to cope with the coronavirus pandemic are now facing attacks similar to those familiar to climate scientists. He pointed to the recent Covid-19 modeling study from Columbia University that President Trump condemned as coming from a "disgraceful institution." The research suggested that as many as 36,000 lives could have been saved by earlier and more decisive action in dealing with Covid-19.

The consequences of such anti-science attitudes "are painfully obvious to all of us and, sadly, will become even more obvious over the next few months or so, and to many future generations with climate change," Santer said.

Charles S. Manski, a Northwestern University economist who helped organize the statement, said scientists have played an important role in advising government leaders on public policy since President Abraham Lincoln created the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine in 1863.

A kind of cross-discipline scientific brain trust for policy making, national academies members represent a who's who list of esteemed scientists. Applicants must apply for membership and be elected by fellow members in one of 31 discipline categories. The science academy's 2,900 members include nearly 190 Nobel prizewinners, including John Holdren, who served as White House science advisor throughout President Barack Obama's term.

Since its creation, the national academy has convened multidisciplinary panels to advise government leaders on everything from nuclear waste to the post-Katrina supply chain and even, on Wednesday, opening schools in the fall with pandemic precautions.

Government policymakers have not tapped this expertise to help shape the comprehensive and integrated national response that the pandemic calls requires, said Manski, a critic of the federal government's Covid-19 response. 

"All of the societal effects—the effects on schooling, the effects on the economy—are just being viewed as political matters," he lamented. "We're not looking at the totality of these effects," along with the health considerations.

He said the federal government should convene an interdisciplinary group of the best applied scientists to address the coronavirus, just as past presidents did in finding solutions for the Great Depression economy and mounting the national defense with the Manhattan Project.

"There's not a hint of that happening" with the pandemic, Manski said. "Nothing at all."

The scientists behind the open letter don't pretend that their online statement will change the administration's thinking on science-informed policy making. But they do hope that by standing together behind the open letter that they can make a difference. 

"Scientific evidence and research should be an important component of policymaking," the statement concludes. "We therefore call on the Federal Government to maintain scientific content on publicly accessible websites, to appoint qualified personnel to positions requiring scientific expertise, to cease censorship and intimidation of Government scientists, and to reverse the decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement.

Ray Weymann, a retired astronomer and astrophysicist, said more and more scientists are unwilling to be bystanders anymore. They want to stand up for scientists and scientific input—especially after "the abuse" Fauci has endured lately.

"These consequences really are a matter of life and death," Weymann said. "And it isn't short-term in terms of the pandemic. It's the long-term consequences of climate change, for example, and toxics in the environment that are going to affect us for many years to come."

He wonders if people on the fence who hear concern from more than a thousand respected scientists might realize that important decisions on issues like climate change and Covid-19 depend on who's making policy. "And I hope that we will change that."

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