Scientists take a stand against “alternative facts”

“We need to base policy on facts,” says AAAS president Barbara Schaal. AAAS is the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Schaal spoke at the organization’s annual meeting in Boston this morning. She’ll be giving a major address on the same theme later today.

Schaal’s statement about the need for fact-based barbaraschaal021616policies seems obvious when you think about health care policy, climate change policy, energy policy, education policy, and a host of other areas. Yet, as recent headlines show, many people in the United States’ current government seem to have other views.

Just last month, Kellyanne Conway, an official counselor to U.S. president Donald Trump, went on national television and defended untrue statements by Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer. Conway said Spicer’s untruths were just “alternative facts.”

“When officials use words like ‘alternative facts’ without embarrassment, you know there’s a problem,” says Rush Holt, the chief executive officer for AAAS.

That’s not all.

Trump has said he doesn’t  believe in climate change, and his pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency has said he considers the scientific finding that human activity is contributing to climate change to be a “religious belief.”

The administration and Congress have also taken actions that signal problems for science. Science-based rules have been rescinded. Various lawmakers have announced an intention to axe the Affordable Care Act and replace it with some undefined something. The president has issued executive orders that are keeping scientists from several countries from entering the United States. Other executive orders have laid down arbitrary guidelines that will make any future rulemaking almost impossible. And scientists within some agencies have been given orders not to talk to people outside the agency about their work, which would include journalists and other scientists.

Why worry?

“The case for science is important,” stresses Schaal. Basic scientific research forms the foundation for many things that we depend upon for our well-being: infrastructure, health care, technology, and more. “It’s important to keep that technology pipeline going,” she says. And that “begins with basic research.”

For example, think about how much you rely on GPS to get where you need to go. The basic research that makes that possible began decades earlier.

“We would not be able to have accurate GPS without Einstein’s theory of relativity,” Schaal says. That’s because the technology needs to account for differences in speed between the satellites used for the system, differences in gravity, and so forth.

In short, says Schaal, science is “essential for modern life.”

For basic research to continue, though, funding must continue. And in the United States, a huge chunk of that money comes from government programs. Good scientific research can also continue only when there is a free flow of ideas.

‘Science is international’

“Science is international,” Schaal continues. “Science is science without borders.” When scholars come to the United States from other countries, they add to the scientific knowledge here. And that in turns helps people around the world.

Trump’s executive order, banning people from certain Muslim-majority countries, would frustrate the free flow of ideas and information. That’s one reason why AAAS spoke out against the travel ban when it was issued in January. (A federal appeals court has ruled against the ban, but it’s not yet clear whether Trump will appeal or try another move to reinstate the ban.)

Politics seems to be playing a role, not only in the travel ban, but also in how the administration will shape its policy decisions. Environmental rules that were based upon years of scientific study and that had gone through detailed rulemaking processes were rescinded—apparently for political reasons. Similar signs bode poorly for other crucial protections for health and the environment.

“Climate science is extremely important for the future of nations and the future of the globe,” notes Schaal. Because of that, statements such as Pruitt’s, claiming the findings of mainstream science on climate change are just “religious beliefs,” are especially worrisome.

Another big worry is that the country could be unprepared to deal with a crisis where scientific knowledge and guidance are crucial. The administration has not yet announced science advisors or leaders for various agencies. That could hamper day-to-day rulemaking and policy work. It can also leave the country vulnerable if a catastrophe happened, such as another offshore oil spill or nuclear emergency.

“What we want is for every government to use science to help it make its policies,” Schaal concluded.

Scientists and supporters are heeding the call, and independent work is underway for an April 22 March for Science.

“This march is gaining energy. It is not petering out,” says Holt. “The tee shirts are selling fast.”

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