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Stanford University School of Medicine

Science organization webinar warns of a “war on scientists”

broken data driveWith so much happening in the Trump administration, I jumped at the chance last week to listen to a webinar on the future of science under the new president. On Thursday, the American Association for the Advancement of Science hosted an interview (registration required) with Norman Ornstein, PhD,  a political scientist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, on how the Trump administration is likely to impact science.

Rush Holt, PhD, chief executive officer of AAAS, interviewed Ornstein.

In general, Ornstein came across as pessimistic, noting, “We now have a president who is trafficking in the idea that vaccines can cause horrible problems and deformities, which science tells us is nonsense.”

Holt asked if the current administration opposed science, or if it was just ignorant or unfamiliar with science.

Both, replied Ornstein. He noted that the media’s tendency to present every issue, from vaccines to climate change, as if scientists are still arguing about what is true has confused people. But in addition, he said, assaulting science is a way to justify keeping science out of policy decisions. When small-government advocates are faced with science that demands government involvement — such as vaccination programs, launching satellites that collect data on carbon dioxide emissions or tracking air pollution and asthma — “the easiest way to deal with that is to discredit the entire scientific community.”

"It’s an extraordinarily dangerous and unfortunate development," Ornstein said.

Holt, a physicist who served in the U.S House of Representatives from 1998 to 2015, offered a prediction:

We’re going to see a war on scientists inside government, trying to root out those who are offering scientific information... What we’ve already seen in the first week of the Trump administration is an attempt to make sure that any of the data, evidence or scientific papers produced inside government are suppressed.


We are moving away from a fundamental culture of a respect for truth, for information, for data, for people who are experienced.

There also is no longer a recognition that science includes debate over the implications of findings, Holt said.

Scientists have a civic duty to help elected officials understand scientific issues, Holt said. Political advocacy is compatible with a career in science, he added. He also encouraged scientists to run for public office, but warned that it would mean giving up science, most likely permanently. He said he had no regrets about giving up science to serve in Congress.

Because the webinar occurred on Thursday, one topic the two experts didn't discuss was Friday's executive order closing U.S. borders to people affiliated with certain countries. But such a ban, experts say, could also impact U.S. science broadly -- and academics have been vocal in their opposition.

Previously: A timely reminder: Vaccines don't cause autismScience communication in the current political climate: A Q&AAt Stanford symposium, a look at the next four years of health policy and The future of Medicaid and Medicare: A Q&A with Stanford Health Policy scholars
Photo by Jon Ross

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