It started Monday, with the news of the American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) being instructed to freeze its grants and stop talking to anyone. And it just escalated, with more agencies getting gag orders, national parks Twitter accounts going viral for tweeting objective scientific facts, the Chair of the House Science committee saying people should get facts from administration and not the media (for double irony, this person is on the caucus for freedom of the press), possible changes to H1B visas that are a staple of many university hiring programs (I had an H1B), and on and on.
And that’s just the stuff that is kind of science related.
Monday night, I said I wanted my scientific professional societies to be ready to fight, like they have never fought before, to defend science. This goes way beyond the usual, “Keep funding coming to science!”, which is important but still kind of self-serving. When you have people literally arguing over whether there are such things as “alternative facts”... the scientific norms of demanding evidence and respecting claims supported by evidence are under so much fire, it is not clear if the scientific enterprise in America will survive, let alone continue to lead the world.
But I digress.
I wanted to report back on my efforts to contact my scientific societies, which I did Tuesday. As of the end of this week, I’ve heard back from most I contacted. I am not identifying the individual societies, but wanted to give an idea of the tone.
- “Policy engagement in light of recent events is already on our agenda.”
- “We are a voice and will raise the level significantly.”
- “I think we have all seen these shocking events. ... I know we want to be poised to respond to this kind of thing in a timely manner, but the timing of any response is important.”
- “We have a number of activities in the works over the coming weeks and months, including opportunities for you to reach out to your elected officials to promote the importance of supporting scientific research.”(A bit form-letterish, but okay.)
- Presenting new scientific results to media and general public without being muzzled is an important part of the scientific process and progress. And this is a principle that (the society) stands behind. Facts are facts. ... On the other hand, apparently this kind of policy restrictions have however been imposed before(.) So we will follow the situation. At the moment it is hard to know exactly what to do.
- One society replied that it is registered as an organization in the US, and that registration means it is “specifically prohibited from partisan political activity.” (However disappointing this may be, it is honest and understandable.)
Out of six societies who replied, I would call it as four responses were positive, one tentative, and one honest case of abstention.
My experience was not unique. Others reported their societies responded positively. Additionally, the Ecological Society of America – somewhat to my surprise – released an open letter to the president.
As a representative of over 10,000 ecological scientists, we ask you to protect the scientific integrity and independence of federal scientists.
The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology issued a brief statement. This is the whole thing:
The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology believes that peer-reviewed science should remain free of politicization, and we support the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and all federally funded scientific agencies in their efforts to continue on their missions without political interference.
The Society for Neuroscience sent this to me inbox as part of its email newsletter:
SfN is firmly committed to the free exchange of ideas and information, diversity, and global collaboration in all fields of science. The Society will continue to be a forceful advocate for neuroscience by informing government leaders and the public about the need for robust science funding and its positive impact on the nation’s health and economy.
SfN advocacy has sometimes looked self-interested in bad ways. I hope the society realizes that this is not a time for, “The NIH funds most of our research, and NIH haven’t been affected, so we’re fine.”
Overall, this is a good start. I worry, though, that scientific societies may be too conservative (irony!) in their approach. When you’re in the fight of your life, you can’t pull punches.
The political attack on science escalates with EPA granting freeze
Asking scientific societies to show some backbone
Agriculture Dept. lifts gag order: report
Scientists must fight for the facts
House Science Committee chairman: Americans should get news from Trump, not media
H-1B visa program faces uncertain future in Trump era
Society for Neuroscience quashing dissent on BRAIN Initiative, critic complains
The Donald Trump War on Science: Scholarly and Professional Society Statements in Support of Open Science Communications