Why is Trump at war with science? It’s about more than money

Lost in all of the attention being paid to the demonization of climate science by the Trump administration is the fact that all the sciences are being slashed. The president’s budget proposal for 2018 cuts $6 billion (20 percent) from the National Institutes of Health, the principal health sciences funder for our nation. The National Science Foundation, which awards more than $7 billion in research grants yearly, wasn’t even mentioned in the president’s budget, while massive cuts are proposed in the space, energy, earth, weather and behavioral sciences.

Savings from these cuts, as well as reductions in spending for education, the arts and humanities, are being used to fund a 9 percent ($54 billion) increase in defense spending, a 7 percent ($2.8 billion) increase for Homeland Security, and a 6 percent ($4.4 billion) increase in Veterans Affairs. Some programs slated for elimination have small budgets—for example, the Fogarty Center for Global Health ($70 million). Others with larger budgets—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is slated for a $250 million cut—are still pitifully small when compared to the Department of Defense.

It would be more understandable if these cuts were the result of a careful analysis, but they are not. No, it’s about more than belt tightening. It appears that we have turned a corner and entered a world in which ideology and pandering to special interests are the principal motivating factors.

How did this happen to a nation with such a long and distinguished history in science and technology?
First, the populist sentiment expressed in the last election showed that there is a significant minority of people in this country who are fundamentally opposed to “government” having any role in their lives, and that includes being funders and supporters of science. Scientific research and investigation is inherently expensive. It often requires use of highly sophisticated and expensive equipment that only government has the resources to finance. This is true not only in fields like particle physics and space exploration but in the biological and the health sciences as well.

Second, religious fundamentalists view science as the enemy. Some fundamentalist Christian groups see evolutionary biology and even the geological sciences as weapons for attacking inerrant biblical “truths.” As these same groups have gained political power, they have made new friends in Washington. Science and its purveyors are not to be trusted—and they certainly are not to be financially supported.

Third, there is a deep philosophical divide between politicians who are ruled by ideology and the followers of the scientific method who rely on data-driven answers and conclusions. Facts that don’t quite fit with ideological dictates can be profoundly threatening.

The Trump administration’s position on climate science is a case in point. If you don’t like the science, just get rid of the scientists. Yet the examples of denial go way beyond the environment and include vaccine policy, fossil fuel emissions, renewable energy and even weather forecasting.

Fourth, science-driven policy can lead to regulations that threaten powerful and entrenched business interests. Science and technology can be of huge benefit to business—take for example robotics, renewable energy, or information and computer technology. But when science leads to regulations that threaten return on investment for owners and shareholders, the rhetoric changes, and talk of “job killing” regulations takes over.

Consider the recent lifting of the clean-water standards. Contaminated mining debris can now be dumped into valleys, streams and rivers. These changes may make coal mining more profitable, but they won’t bring back jobs to an industry dying for other reasons. The main impact on workers won’t be more jobs—it will be greater exposure to heavy metals. No wonder the fossil fuel, chemical and pharmaceutical industries are anxiously awaiting the arrival of the deregulation bus.

Finally, science is about the search for truth. Scientists rely on observable, measurable facts. They start with hypotheses, conduct experiments or observe the natural world and look for confirmation or rejection of these hypotheses in the data. It is an inherently democratic process. Each bit of data or information is given weight such that, ideally, although not always, the outcome is unbiased. Compare this to the political world we now inhabit, with its “fake news,” “alternative facts” and lying. The threat becomes obvious. Who knows? We may soon witness Sean Spicer trying to explain why pi—the ratio of a circle’s diameter to its circumference—is simply a fiction perpetrated on us by the Obama administration.

What are the consequences of these anti-science developments?
For one, we stand to lose our lead as a preeminent producer of new scientific discoveries and research. The loss of funding at the governmental level cannot possibly be replaced privately by even the likes of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Michael Bloomberg. That the private sector can or will fill this void is a lunatic notion. Who will fund research in pure mathematics? What private sector company is going to study the epidemiology of Zika virus? Where will the research on rare, orphan diseases come from?

Still worse we are sending a message to young people that discourages them from seeking careers in the basic sciences. Increasingly, they will come to realize that there will be no money for training or to support their research going forward. Once the pipeline of highly trained and educated young scientists closes down, it will likely take a generation to start it up again. In that period of time we may well cede our leadership role in science and technology to China, India or Japan.

In the medical and biological sciences the loss of money to support applied research will quite likely result in the loss of our ability to respond to new and emerging infectious diseases, to develop and deploy new diagnostic and treatment modalities and to protect ourselves from environmental threats to our health through air, water and soil. The infrastructure required to support basic research cannot be built in a few years like a shopping mall. It requires years of nurturing but can be lost quickly.

Worst of all, devaluing science means turning our backs on critical thinking, the capacity to question and the search to understand the world around us. The Trump administration values none of these things. It’s easy to drop bombs, build walls, fire missiles and sign executive orders.

Our choices are not constrained by lack of resources; they are constrained by a lack of leadership. Surely, the leader of the wealthiest country in the world ought to be able to find a way forward that allows us to preserve our security while at the same time maintaining our leadership in science, education and the arts.

Jim Hyde is a professor emeritus of public health at the Tufts University School of Medicine. He lives in Charlotte.