The Triple Helix @ UChicago

Fall 2018

"The Danger in Politicizing Science" by Corinne Stonebraker

 

The politicization of science has been increasingly on the rise since the 2016 election of President Donald Trump, especially with the much-publicized midterm elections this past November. Trump’s tenure has affected environmental policy, climate and energy policy, health care, technology and education. At a time when the irreversible course of climate change is practically impossible to ignore, the Trump administration has taken a stance on science that is widely apathetic—and sometimes, actively antagonistic.

In the now-famous tweet from November 2012, Trump claimed that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”[1] While he has since stated that the Chinese connection was a joke, Trump has maintained an incredulous and doubtful position on climate change. When asked about the October United Nations report stressing the extent of irreversible damage that has already resulted from global warming, Trump replied “No, no. Some say that and some say differently, I mean you have scientists on both sides of it.” In an October interview with 60 Minutes, Trump claimed that, while he no longer believes climate change is a ‘hoax,’ climate change scientists do have a "political agenda."[2] Most concerningly, he expressed doubt that humans are responsible for the earth's rising temperatures. These two statements are representative of how dangerous Trump’s stance is on the state of science; the validity of science is, under his presidency, contingent on who believes it. “Trump might as well be saying that there are scientists on ‘both sides of the gravity debate,’” said Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann said in an interview with the Associated Press. “Of course, there are uncertainties. There always are. There are uncertainties in the science of gravity. That doesn’t make it safe to jump off a cliff.”[3] Similarly, it’s not safe to ignore the nearly unanimous decision by the nation’s scientists that global warming is becoming an imminent threat.

This hostile attitude is dangerous because it directly affects how policy is carried out and has the power to direct the United States’ long-term climate goals. The position of the White House’s top scientist, the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, has been empty for the longest time of any first-term president since 1976, and many other science-related agency positions remain unfilled. 18 months into his administration, President Trump had filled 25 of the 83 positions designated by the National Academy of Sciences as “scientist appointees.” Only 12 months into their presidencies, President Obama had filled 63 such positions and President Bush had filled 51 positions. These positions are integral in advising the President and senior White House staff, and in helping to inform policies, legislation, and budgets.[4] The few positions in top scientific agencies that Trump has filled have been with pro-industry leaders. In 2017, he nominated Scott Pruitt, whose Oklahoma Attorney General campaign received $215,574 in donations from the fossil fuel industry, as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.[5]

The issue isn’t necessarily an insufficient understanding of the importance of science-related policy decisions. The problem is that scientific policy, especially anti-climate change policy, often threatens the material self-interests of powerful oil and gas companies. By most measures, it seems that Exxon Mobil loves science—it employs thousands of scientists, donates tens of thousands of dollars to scholarships for women and minorities in STEM, and even has a geological principle named after it. Exxon Mobil, and fossil fuel companies like it, are driven by the scientific research of the engineers, geophysicists, and climate researchers that they employ. However, any ‘love’ of science falls to the wayside in light of self-interest. The U.S. gives $700 billion in subsidies to fossil fuel companies every year, and these companies use it to oppose the scientific policy that negatively affects them.[6] The fossil fuel industry does not love science. It exploits the knowledge science grants to advance financial self-interest and ignores when science says climate change is a global threat. Giving scholarships to future scientists does not negate accountability for damaging the world those future scientists are going to live in.

While large companies may have an undue amount of power, entering politics to protect material self-interest is not necessarily unusual. However, protection of this material self-interest at a cost to something that is indisputable, like science, should be concerning. Science is not a partisan issue—not when extreme heat, drought, and floods are occurring at an alarming frequency, and especially not when the science is telling us that our planet is headed towards environmental catastrophe.

 

References

[1] Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump), “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” Tweet, November 6, 2012, https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/265895292191248385.

[2] Kathryn Watson, “Trump says "I have a natural instinct for science" that explains doubts on climate change,” CBS News, October 17, 2018, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/trump-defends-stance-on-climate-change-i-have-a-natural-instinct-for-science/.

[3] Seth Borenstein, “AP FACT CHECK: Trump misses on storms, science, clean air,” The Associated Press, October 17, 2018, https://www.apnews.com/8f9a5a44695a4a6cbf22a9edad755e4d.

[4] Jeffrey Mervis, “Trump’s White House science office still small and waiting for leadership,” Science Magazine, July 11, 2017, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/07/trump-s-white-house-science-office-still-small-and-waiting-leadership.

[5] Eric Lipton and Coral Davenport, “Scott Pruitt, Trump’s E.P.A. Pick, Backed Industry Donors Over Regulators,” The New York Times, January 14, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/14/us/scott-pruitt-trump-epa-pick.html.

[6] Robinson Meyer, “The Case for the Politicization of Science,” The Atlantic, April 28, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/04/scientists-should-just-be-political/524682/.

 
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