The threat to science and science integrity

Naomi Oreskes: We don't want to be here, none of us wants to be here. We want to be in our labs, we want to be in the field, we want to be with our students, we want to be doing the work that we were trained and educated and raised to do, which is science. It's the work of understanding the natural world, understanding how this beautiful, amazing and complicated world works, and using that information to make the world a better place for all of us, to make it safe, and to protect the natural environment that God or creation of the universe gave us. But we are in a moment in time, a moment in history where we have to do something else as well, and that's stand up and be counted.

Robyn Williams: The March for Science, on this weekend, was conceived in America following the perceived attacks from Donald Trump and his administration. The proposed cuts to research are massive, but should scientists take to the streets? Can you picture Charles Darwin or Elizabeth Blackburn waving placards? Here's a debate on the merits of marching I recorded in Boston, involving several of those who were in the Obama administration.

Gretchen Goldman: So in the short term there is really a need and a desire for all of us to respond to the alternative facts discourse that is coming out of the White House, and the threat of science being pushed aside in the context of the policy agenda. And so in that context I would suggest that we all again need to make sure that we don't respond alone but we try to work in a coordinated fashion to have a strategic response.

But in the long term…less a post-truth world than what I would call a post-expert world. In the digital age where we have social media and the filter bubbles of Facebook and Google, all voices get equal air time, and therefore science voices and the other expert voices get either drowned out or often filtered out and just not even heard. And so as a result, we as a scientific community need to adjust our means of science communication and public engagement, where we move beyond broadcasting facts and even move beyond broadcasting really strong stories, to join in conversations with our fellow citizens who are non-scientists, and looking for opportunities for creating opportunities where they can start conversations with us.

While I was at the White House, at OSTP, working under Dr Holdren over the past year I had an opportunity to work with a number of initiatives to do just this. One was called Resilience Dialogues which was a public private collaboration which we launched last year. And this is an opportunity for communities around the nation to ask for extended conversations with scientists and experts and other technical experts, not just across federal agencies but also across academia and across civil society. And these dialogues where about what are the risks of climate variability and change to your specific community, and what are the opportunities for your communities to be able to respond to them?

So I really think if for scientists in the context of at least environmental and sustainability issues, for scientists to maintain our relevance in this post expert world, it would be really important for us to proactively seek opportunities to join and create conversations with communities across the nation. And I'll say that I think it is not only important for our democracy but I also think it is really valuable for science moving forward.

Question: I'm Amber Mace, I'm with the California Council on Science and Technology. Some of you may have recently heard our Governor Jerry Brown at AGU say 'we'll launch our own damn satellites'. So my question to you is what is the role of the state and can you talk about how states can pick up the slack when things aren't happening at the federal level?

John Holdren: Well, I can take a start at that. Obviously we have been relying very heavily on the states for leadership in a number of domains, including the climate change domain. And the states and individual cities and communities have been leaders in embracing important ideas and initiatives about climate change adaptation as well as mitigation. There are a number of other areas where states and particularly California as a very large and influential state have been leaders, including of course historically in the air pollution domain. We are going to have to increase our reliance on states in the face of the directions that the federal government is taking.

Question: Hi, I'm Alexandrea Matthews from New Bedford Parks and Recreation, Massachusetts. I was wondering, what advice do you have for non-scientists to best advocate for science?

Jane Lubchenco: We need you. Now more than ever we need non-scientists to help articulate science and its benefits, and the tremendous role that it plays in making America already great. So I think that's going to be really important as we move forward. Facts might not matter in the political landscape that we are in now, but they certainly matter when we get down to what drugs people take, what food they eat, whether or not they have safe drinking water, and these are things that science helps us maintain. And if we don't have science in forming decisions, and if we see the sort of budget cuts that this administration has claimed to intend to implement, that's going to have a lot of detrimental impacts at the local and state level. I think we can use that and leverage that to really articulate why we shouldn't dismantle this process that we have of how science is informing decisions.

Lewis Branscomb: A quick comment. I would like you to observe the fact that there is an organisation called the AAAS, which does happily take as members people who are not scientists, have no training in science, but they care about it. If they've heard about it, they want to know about it, they're willing to participate in it. And I was just told at lunch today about a man who runs the place, that they've had hundreds and hundreds of people who have been joining AAAS. Tell your friends, go join AAAS and get other people engaged. They don't have to be PhDs.

John Holdren: And I'd also point out you don't have to be a scientist to join Union of Concerned Scientists or many of the other organisations around the place.

Question: Hi, I'm Jeremy Grantham, Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment. We've been working for let's say 15 or 20 years with the climate change scientists, and there's no subgroup of scientists that have been more heavily under attack for the last 15 years, I think it's fair to say. But I must say I've been horrified really by the lack of intense involvement with the real world, with the lack of passion. I think scientists actually think that passion is not scientific, to be honest. They have an enormous respect for the dignity of science and they go out of their way to make sure it's not under any threat. They understate their work, and in climate change that is simply dangerous if it leads to a lack of understanding by senior politicians. They are very reluctant to get involved with the real political world.

This is a matter of real survivability for certainly our society as we know it and maybe many species, including our own, and I think there really is a need for scientists everywhere under stress like this to be a little more passionate than they have been. It shouldn't take the second coming of Mussolini. Thank you.

Amy Luers: I'm not sure that needs a response! Jeremy, I agree with you, and part of my focus on engagement of scientists with society is to share that passion, share the awe, share the process of doing the science so that there is more appreciation of it, but making the science more understandable, relevant and accessible is first and foremost what we need to be doing.

Lewis Branscomb: A very good example of that is that there are a lot of people who are aware that in recent years the weather in the eastern half of the United States has been very severe compared to what it historically is. And if you go out to California where I am it gets hot and dry. So people are saying, well, what happened to climate change? Well, there's a long explanation for exactly that, that this is caused by climate change by the way in which the air is circulated in the Arctic. The public ought to be told enough about it to have some notion that these are consistent facts, that the climate change mechanism in the planet is doing what we are experiencing.

Question: I'm Faye Flam, I write a science column for Bloomberg. My question is there has been a lot of interest lately in scientists more involved in policy, including running for office, and I wondered if you thought scientists might have something more to offer than just specialised expertise, but scientific thinking itself and the way scientists understand the nature of evidence. And I wondered if there were things that scientists can bring to the table in terms of understanding how evidence works.

John Holdren: We actually made a substantial effort in that direction in the Obama administration, a big thrust of what President Obama meant when he said in his initial inaugural address we are going to put science in its rightful place in my administration, was bringing scientists and engineers to the table in virtually every policy discussion. And one of the things that the scientists and engineers did try to provide was exactly what you've just discussed, not just what a particular fact is but how you know that it is a fact, what can be learned about the way scientists and engineers approach problems, and applying that to decision-making, not just in the White House but all across the departments and agencies. So I think you're absolutely right, I think we made a big effort at that in the Obama administration. I think it was largely successful. What we have to worry about now is how much of it might be lost from either inattention or deliberate dismantlement.

Gretchen Goldman: I think the other opportunity here is what you highlighted in your question, which was encouraging scientists to run for office. So I've heard actually a number of my colleagues say 'I'm going to' or 'I'm thinking about it', which I think is very, very exciting, and this links back to your question, Amber, about what happens at the state level and having scientists be more involved in local government, in state government, not just at the federal level, but bringing to the table some of the critical thinking, some of the problem-solving, some of the evidence examination that is part and parcel of how you do science. So I think there's a rich opportunity beyond the federal government here, and it might be running for office, but it might also be becoming more involved in advisory committees for local governments, for state governments, for agencies. And I think there's a rich array of opportunities to help infuse scientific thinking into the way decisions are made, and then that actually can bubble up many of the people who are in Congress used to hold offices at lower levels. And if they are exposed to science and scientific thinking, one would like to hope that that actually might eventually impact at a larger scale.

Question: Yes, I'm Greg Boebinger, director of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory. The March for Science is right around the corner, and I think that's a huge opportunity for science, but I'm also concerned that it could end up working against us. If we come across as elitist, if we come across, worse, as partisan, I think that we may end up contributing to the attempts to marginalise science and the importance of science. I wonder if the panel and if the Union of Concerned Scientists have specific guidance for those of us who are organising or planning to take part in the March for Science.

Jane Lubchenco: Yes, thank you. The Union of Concerned Scientists is cosponsoring the March for Science on April 22nd, and we are also sponsoring…we are also part of the Climate March, which is the weekend after on April 29th. So there are a lot of smart people thinking about this exact issue and how to make sure that it doesn't lead to a more partisan image of science and scientists. The other thing that strikes me at this moment is that we are in a very different moment in time. The way that this might have looked or be seen 10 years ago might have been very different than what we are looking at now. So I think we are just in a different era and it's not going to be viewed in the same way that it was. And I encourage all of you to think about ways to help that along and make sure that we don't appear elitist and we're not, in making it clear that this is about the broader public and protecting people's lives and it's not just about protecting our funding sources and our livelihoods. I think we can all play a role in making sure that it's clear that this is about society, this is about the America that we want to live in.

Amy Luers: I think this is a really important point, and I think one of the ways that we can take control of that narrative is for the citizens and scientists that I hope are equally represented in the march, that everybody finds an opportunity to say to the general public, to your community, why you're marching. One opportunity would be to write an op-ed to your local newspaper and tell them, this is why we are marching, I'm marching because I believe in science, I believe in facts, I believe in data to protect my children, to protect my community and for the prosperity of our country. And I think if we can control that from the bottom-up then it will be a really important march.

Gretchen Goldman: I'd just add one more suggest to that and that is to encourage people who aren't scientists to march as well, because this is a march for and about science, it is not a march of scientists. Write those op-eds, blog, tweet, letters to the editor, all those kind of things, and have it be a celebration of science and focus on the why science is important, not just assert it is.

Question: Hal Hodson with The Economist. I think it's quite clear that there are large communities out there that don't just feel that scientific institutions don't represent them, but also that those institutions actively are against them, and it's kind of a related question to the last one, but does the panel have any ideas for how this community and the broader community can actively reach out to those people who feel that way? And I think it's very clear that they do. Trump wouldn't be saying the things he's saying if there weren't lots of people who felt the same way.

John Holdren: I do actually think that it's incredibly important for scientists to actually be out in communities working with their fellow citizens, the residents in communities, trying to connect scientists to community organisations. And the key point there is not, oh, I'll go and give a talk, it's I'll go and listen and actually listen to what people are confronting in their daily lives, and then think about how science relates to those challenges.

Lewis Branscomb: Just building on the comments that the last four or five speakers have made, that every scientist who's going to the march should bring along two non-scientist citizens and I think this should be true of the speeches from the podium as well, and particularly bringing along citizens who at least in part are representative of individuals who been helped by science, whose lives have been made better in important and easily communicated ways by science. I think that the word go a long way toward alleviating the danger that this is an elitist group, isolated from the real needs of society.

Question: I'm an emergency physician and I practice in the region. Part of the thing when I listen to what is being presented is what to do, and partly on what you do that is based on what you think you are up against. And part of that I think that got relayed when he said the second coming of Mussolini, I think it augurs something much worse than what is right before our eyes. This is an authoritarian fascist government, and all these institutions that people are hoping to rely upon to keep him and his group in check I think are just going to fold.

In your article that I just read, it said the community of scientists were caught off guard. I think we are still caught off guard. This is a locomotive coming at us and they will come, just like they did in Germany and Italy. They will come for the scientists, they will attack the scientists, and they will imprison them. I think part of the response has to be that we are going to protect each and every one of us that gets attacked. Even if you just do your science and don't speak out you'll get attacked because of the nature of what you are bringing forward.

Universities are going to be gone after, as they are already beginning to. We have to protect it as a zone of resistance, to speak out, to speak freely and to speak up about our science, our relationships to the global but not just America first, to hell with that. I've got colleagues in Palestine and India and in Russia. We're going to collaborate, regardless of what they say. And if we get attacked for it, everybody in this room needs to stand up because we do not want to be called good Germans.

Question: My name is Kurt Gottfried, I'm one of the founders of UCS. And I'm one of the founders of UCS in part because as a child and as I remember with great clarity, I saw the Nazis take over my Vienna, and I saw my school yard filled with tanks and my skies filled with German fighter planes. So I know what you are talking about and I want to warn you against overstating the case. I think the United States is not Germany in 1938. We have a lot of strength that we can rely on.

Of course I understand extremely well what threats you are talking about, but I think we damage ourselves by exaggerating that threat. This country has strengths that Germany did not have. There's a history that Germany did not have. And to equate the two is ridiculous. Unfortunately you may be right, you may turn out to be right, but to talk now as if it's a foregone conclusion is a great mistake.

Question: Miss Lara Ehrenhofer, I am a graduate student at the University of Maryland at College Park. The fact of the matter is, truths are often far less simple than lies, and so it's much easier to repeat a lie. So what would you say are some good strategies for making sure that the right people are hearing the right things?

Gretchen Goldman: So I think part of what you're focused on is a challenge to established experts, it's not just evidence, it's sort of the elite. And I think that this is yet another reason why scientists being more engaged with communities is really important, especially when there are opportunities to coproduce knowledge. In the business of doing fishery management, which was something that is the responsibility of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, it manages fisheries in federal waters, and there has long been a tension between the fishery scientists and many fishermen who say they see very different things going on in the ocean space. And so just exactly what you are describing, not believing evidence or just dismissing evidence.

And in fact those programs where fishermen are participating in the acquisition of the knowledge and understand what the protocols are all about, what the rationale for those is, what happens to the evidence, and have an opportunity to actually be part of the process, have a much stronger support for the use of that information and accept it as being credible.

And so I think we are moving into a world where someone from on high says 'this is the truth' and that's just not carrying its weight anymore. We have to move to a situation where people have more confidence in the information that is being used that affects their lives, and one of the ways of helping with that is to engage them in the process of getting that information.

Ken Kimmell: Thank you to the great panellists for your insights and observations, and thank you all for coming. It doesn't surprise me at all that we had a standing room only, overflow crowd when the title is 'Defending Science and Science Integrity in the Era of President Trump'. I think all of us in this room know that there is a grave threat to science and science integrity. And while I don't think we are where we were in the '30s and Nazi Germany, we do face some unique threats in this country that I haven't seen, at least in my lifetime. When you pair up a factless President with a post Citizens United Congress that is more and more in the grip of special interests, and a populace that is increasingly confused about what is true and what's not and has lost confidence in the institutions that we've all relied on in our lives to help us sort out fact from fiction. So this is a unique threat, and I have to say I agree completely with Jane Lubchenco, that scientists need to make a quantum leap into relevance to deal with that threat.

So I'd like to leave everyone with three thoughts. A first is from Woody Allen: 90% of life is showing up. It is not going to be enough to sign petitions and to write emails and even to make calls. So that's the first thing. The second is I want to underline something that Jeremy Grantham said, the days of carefully caveated, nuanced communication, the kind that most people in this room are very comfortable with, those days are over. Those are not going to be effective. And we need to find ways to continue to be accurate and truthful, but to have an emotional punch to our speaking. Donald Trump is not pulling punches when he speaks, and we can't either.

And the third piece I want to talk about, just echoing what John Holdren said about the budget, there are going to be crippling and severe cuts to some of the science agencies that we care about. There is also going to be a plan to deny Medicaid reimbursement to Planned Parenthood, and that will shut down about half of the clinics in the United States. So we've got to understand that those causes are ours also, and we need to be together, unified with a lot of other people in this country. We're going to lose some battles along the way, but I think we can win the war if we stayed unified. So thank you all for being here.

Robyn Williams: That last speaker and host of the debate was Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists in America. And you also heard Dr Jane Luchenco, former head of NOAA; John Holdren, chief scientific advisor to President Obama; Amy Luers; and Gretchen Goldman, and many others. And the forum was convened by the AAAS, that's the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in Boston Massachusetts.

In Australia there are marches in Sydney, Bendigo, Cairns, Brisbane, Canberra, Hobart, Launceston, Melbourne, Newcastle, Perth and Townsville, as well as Washington DC and 54 countries around the world. Will they make a difference?

Production for The Science Show by David Fisher. I'm Robyn Williams.

Speaker at rally: This event is really about all of you guys, all of the scientists that are here today with the AGU, all of the folks from communities around the bay area standing together to say that we will not stand for attacks on science and we will stand up in the face of intimidation.

Speaker at rally: We need scientists and federal agencies and across the country to keep doing their work and to let them know we have their backs. So I invite you to join with us, join with any organisation that is standing up for science, find ways in your own communities, in your own states across the country to ensure that science and evidence is not dismissed, disparaged or ignored. Thank you very much.

Speaker at rally: Stand up for science!

Crowd: Stand up for science!

Speaker at rally: Out of the labs and into the streets!

Crowd: Out of the labs and into the streets!

Speaker at rally: Thank you!