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Changing course

The Associated Press and various other media outlets have called the 2020 US presidential election for Joe Biden.

Transitions of power bring change, and Dr. Gretchen Goldman believes a Biden presidency will be welcomed by the scientific community.

The research director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, Goldman sat down with us to look back on how science has been treated the past four years – and how that might change under a new administration.

Can you describe how science and science-based policy fared under the Trump administration? 

Looking back over the past four years, the Trump administration was more hostile to science than we've seen in any administration.<strong>Dr. Gretchen Goldman</strong> worked on statistical modeling of urban air pollution before becoming a public advocate for science. Courtesy  Catherine Xu, Union of Concerned Scientists

We did a study and looked back seven decades. And the extent to which this administration has sidelined science was truly unprecedented.

Science, of course, isn't partisan and it shouldn't be. And there's always been challenges around politicization of science in using it to fit your political agenda. But these past four years were truly a challenge for science. 

How might a Joe Biden presidency change the trajectory of this country's science agenda? How does the science community feel about this change? 

I think that the science community welcomes an administration that listens to scientists. The Biden campaign was very focused on listening to the scientists.

 <strong>President-elect Joe Biden</strong> has already created a COVID-19 task force filled with knowledgeable and experienced scientists.

What we know so far from the priorities on the transition page seemed to point that they are going to listen to science. They're going to appoint knowledgeable experts to address some of these challenges we now face. 

And this is very welcome from the scientific community, both broadly and I think especially for scientists working within the government who have really taken a hit these past few years, with some having to live in a culture of fear. Others having to be disparaged and demoralized by an administration that didn't respect their role and the important work that they do. 

You mentioned a "culture of fear." Can you expand on that?

We know from studying scientists working within the government that they need to feel like they are supported by the people above them when doing their work. 

This is especially true if they're working on something that is politically contentious, like climate change or vaccines. And we know that government scientists tend to be cautious and they don't want to ruffle feathers.

If you have an administration like this one that has been openly hostile toward science, has even thrown scientists under the bus directly, other government scientists see that and they see that it is not worth sticking your neck out if you’re going to potentially get fired. 

One of the more high-profile cases was around the famous marker drawing on the hurricane forecast. The scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) stood up and said, “no, actually the hurricane is not going to hit Alabama.”

And then we saw the administration and the political appointees at NOAA just throw the scientists under the bus and said “nope, we're going to go along with the president.” That was incredibly disappointing.

"If you have an administration like this one that has been openly hostile toward science ... other government scientists see that and they see that it is not worth sticking your neck out." ~ Goldman

But this is not something that should be political, scientists should be free to do their jobs. We've also seen in the data from surveying scientists over many years that government scientists will self-censor if they feel like their job or their position or their work might be politicized.

Hundreds of scientists told us that even though they hadn't been directly told not to say climate change or work on climate issues, they've avoided doing so. 

That's a big issue because climate change is a complex problem that we need the best and smartest scientists working on. If those within the government don't even feel free enough to talk about it and study it, then it's the public's loss.

You mention climate change which, like the pandemic, will require a broad mobilization of resources to fight. Can we take the momentum of science-based reactions to a global pandemic and apply it to climate change? 

They are similar, they involve collective action and individual inconvenience, potentially. 

We are sort of seeing this play out with COVID. Countries that are more willing to do the work to stop it are in a much better place right now.  

Hopefully, this gives people a good example of when we work together, when we listen to science and scientists, we can get out of the mess that we created. That’s true on climate change. That was true on the ozone hole that is the other sort of global cooperation example that's often cited.

<strong>Collective action</strong> on regulating ozone-depleting compounds has allowed the ozone's hole to slowly begin to close.

This should be a model where people see the importance of listening to scientists. And if ever there was an example to show why you should let scientists talk directly to the public, this is it.

They should be given the ability to do their work even when the problems don't seem pressing at the time. This is crystal clear with COVID.

How do we move forward with science-based policy when people fight against the advice of experts?

I clearly had a lack of imagination about how far people were willing to take science denial.

<strong>Anti-science rhetoric</strong> exploded under the pandemic, with large swaths of Americans refusing to listen to the advice of experts.

It’s one thing to do it when it's a politically convenient talking point about a more abstract concept. But we are seeing some people literally put their own life and health at risk trying to make a political point. And that was just mind-blowing to me.

So I think there's a few things there. One is that leadership matters, right? If we’d had a president who respected science and didn't make wearing masks and acceptance of a global pandemic political, then we'd be in a much different place. 

Another key point is putting experts and people with experience in positions of power. We saw the Trump administration left about half of the science leadership positions in the government open. They didn't even fill them. 

That's a vacuum of leadership in science.

The last point I'll make on that is that we do have this broader challenge of misinformation in our fragmented media landscape. And this is a problem much bigger than any administration or president. 

<strong>Social media sites</strong> play a big role in misinformation campaigns. We need these platforms to participate in battling these lies and manipulations.

However, there's lots of things that we could be doing as a society to try to shut that down. There's lots of efforts to work with social media platforms too, and they've attempted to step it up recently. 

The scientific community is broadly battling this misinformation ecosystem. And I think that we should all stay engaged and do our part to dispel a lot of what gets circulated. 

This is a moment of political division. With that in mind, how can our readers support science? 

I think we all have a role to play in communicating science, in making clear that science matters in our day-to-day life. 

I like to do this a lot on my personal social media pages because I think, especially for those in the scientific community, we often take for granted scientific literacy. The idea that you can read an article and understand what it means and how science works. 

That's not intuitive to people that aren't in that space often. 

We have a lot of power in our personal networks that I think everyone should be tapping more. Especially in this misinformation-rich environment. If we are trusted sources for people in our lives, that goes a long way. 

The other sort of broad thing on the policy side, I would say, is that I am very hopeful that the scientific community will stay engaged in in the coming months and years. 

"We have a lot of power in our personal networks that I think everyone should be tapping more." ~ Goldman

The Trump administration mobilized scientists like had never happened before. And it blew me away. I work in science activism and I was unprepared for how excited scientists were to engage.

We need that to not go away because even if it is a friendly administration, there are lots of things that we still need scientists to push them on. It’s easy right now to say, "OK, well, if Joe Biden is going to be president, we're good, everything's fine."

But that's not at all how it works. All leadership needs pushing on to make sure they're prioritizing science and making science-based decisions. So there'll be a lot of work to do. 

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