By Matin Durrani in Boston, US
I’m here at the 2017 meeting of the American Assocation for the Advancement of Science in Boston, where the theme is “Serving society through science policy”. The focus was picked last year, but it turned out to be an auspicious choice with the election of Donald Trump throwing the science community into uncharted policy waters.
Trying to make sense of what life will be like for US scientists under the Trump administration were five people with extensive experience of working closely with recent US presidents.
Chairing the session was Neal Lane, who served as Bill Clinton’s presidential science adviser for two years in the 1990s. Also present was physicist John Holdren, who spent eight years until last month as Barack Obama’s science chief, for which the audience gave him a generous round of applause.
The other speakers were Kerri-Ann Jones (a one-time head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy), former Congressman Bart Gordon, and Rosina Bierbaum, who served on Obama’s PCAST panel of top scientists.
And if you didn’t know that PCAST stands for the clunkily titled President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, you’re not alone. Bierbaum joked that Obama couldn’t remember either and used to simply call this 20-strong panel of experts “my scientists”.
As Bierbaum put it, “Obama made science cool”. The former president took it seriously too, bringing on top scientists like Holdren, Nobel laureate Steven Chu and Ernest Moniz into key positions in his administration, formulating principles underpinning scientific integrity in policy making, and ensuring science and technology is well funded and made accessible to all.
Now, though, we are living in very different times and the panel discussed how they see science faring under Trump. The good news, according to Holdren, is that many people in Congress understand the importance of science and technology, where there’s a long history of bipartisanship. We can therefore probably expect continued support for science, Holdren added, though there may be a shift away from energy research. The bad news, for Holdren, is that he can see Trump cutting support for basic science, climate monitoring and scientific infrastructure. “We could be in for a major shift in cluture,” Holdren added.
So what can scientists do to make the case for science? Holdren had five points of action, which I paraphrase here.
1. Don’t be discouraged or intimidated.
2. Carry on doing your science.
3. Inform yourself more fully about the impact of science on society.
4. Give 10% of your time to “public service” for science, such as speaking to non-scientists about why science is vital.
5. Focus your efforts and work with colleagues from other disciplines on activities that will have the most impact. “Don’t pounce on each day’s indignity,” he said.
The other panellists made similar points, including the need to tell “stories” showing how basic research benefits society, such as Einstein’s general relativity being crucial for GPS. (Though how you sell the benefits of science to a taxi driver who’s lost his job because of GPS-powered Uber taxis putting him out of business is a tricky challenge.)
The basic problem, though, as Gordon underlined, is that we simply don’t know how Trump will act. As he put it: “Trump is not captive to consistency.”