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The state of science 2018

Speed read
  • Science supporters gathered in Washington DC on Earth Day 2017 to protest attacks on science
  • Gretchen Goldman of the Union of Concerned Scientists brings us up to date
  • Many policy changes worse than expected, but a few bright spots

<strong>Gretchen Goldman</strong>, research director in the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.On April 22, 2017 thousands of people Marched for Science on the National Mall in Washington DC. Alarmed by the rise in ‘alternate facts’ and concerned about the new Trump administration’s proposed cuts to science funding, concerned citizens took to the streets to show their support for evidence-based research.

One year later, Science Node got in touch with Gretchen Goldman, Research Director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, to give us an update on the current state of science in the US.

Did the past year in science policy turn out to be as bad as the marchers feared?

Many of the things we were concerned about have happened, but in potentially different ways than I anticipated. The current administration has gotten increasingly creative about diminishing the role of science.

Politics and policy. Marchers at the inaugural March for Science on April 22, 2017 show their support for scientific research and evidence-based policy.

Last year, we were more concerned about active intimidation, of an authority telling scientists ‘You can’t talk to the media, you can’t work on that project.’ That’s happening to some extent, but the bigger problem we’ve discovered is an implicit fear.

They’ve created a working environment that makes people scared to talk. They only have to make an example out of a few people before that message is heard loud and clear throughout the scientific community.

Based on our coverage of last year’s March, we know many of the marchers were concerned about the diminished role of science in decision-making. How has that turned out?

Again, this has unfolded in ways I wouldn’t have predicted. Take federal scientific advisory committees. These are groups of scientists that volunteer their time and expertise to inform agency decision making on everything from drug approvals to worker safety issues. It’s a great process that allows independent science to feed into government decisions, and they play a crucial role.

But in a systematic report that came out in January we found that many of these committees haven’t met. Membership is down by 14% since 2016 — people have been kicked off committees and not replaced. Or replaced with people that are not qualified scientifically or who have a direct financial stake in the outcome of the decisions of the committee. That’s very concerning.

This administration is trying to change how science is used. If there’s any chance science is going to be inconvenient to their political agenda, they’re trying to figure out how to get rid of it.

That’s certainly discouraging. Is there anything that you didn’t see coming?

The targeting of specific communities has been worse than we anticipated. The census is coming up in 2020 and they’re going to ask about citizenship. We’re really worried about that because, from a science perspective, it could very much affect the accuracy of the data you get back.

The census happens only every ten years, and a lot of policy decisions are made based on those numbers. If we’re undercounting people — especially if we’re undercounting undocumented people, low-income people, people of color — that’s going to have big policy implications.

How do scientists feel about this? Is it affecting their work?

Why Dr. Gu marched for science. Scientists at federal agencies are feeling a climate of fear and intimidation.

We recently sent out surveys to more than 60,000 scientists across different agencies in the federal government. We’ve done this periodically for more than a decade and usually get a response rate between 15-20 percent. But this time, responses at most agencies are around 5 percent.

We don’t collect names — it’s an impersonal, anonymous survey. We suspect the low response rate is due, at least in part, to self-censorship, to scientists feeling like, ‘I can’t possibly do this. If someone finds out I’ve answered this survey, it’s going to be a problem for me at work.’

Any bright spots?

It’s not been all doom and gloom. At UCS, we’ve seen unprecedented numbers of scientists wanting to work with us. They’re holding meetings with their members of Congress, writing op-eds, and really fighting on some of these wonky issues that are super important but, previously, didn’t get as much traction from people. A few scientists are even running for office.

<strong>Into the future.</strong> Goldman advises concerned citizens to pay attention to policy issues and continue to fight for the health and safety of our nation. Courtesy March for Science, Puerto Rico; Jillian Hopgood.As far as specific victories, the recent budget that passed is really good for science. We were glad to see the EPA’s environmental justice office funded. And the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS). It tests chemicals and provides one of the only scientific inputs for how harmful a chemical is. Grassroots groups use those numbers to know what is safe for their community, and it feeds into state and local policy decisions.

We also got rid of the decades-old CDC ban on doing research on gun violence. With the help of the recent activism around gun violence, Congress included new language in this version of the bill saying the CDC can and should research violence. That’s definitely a bright spot — a year ago, that was not politically feasible.

Do you have any advice for our readers if they want to take action? How can they get involved to support science?

The advice I give to people is to pay attention. To remember that these issues matter for real people across the country. The UCS is fighting this fight in DC, but it’s about everyone in the country and the health and safety of our nation.

We don’t have to just sit back and watch terrible things happen. There’s a lot we can do to challenge what’s going on and to fight for the kind of science in democracy that we know this country is about.

Note: The 2018 March for Science is planned for April 14. 

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