Silencing Science: A Humanist Take on Science and Politics

This past Thursday I attended a panel at the Center for American Progress titled Silencing Science. The panel featured notable scientists, professors, and former government officials, including former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, an MIT-trained physicist who was instrumental in constructing the Iran nuclear deal. The developments they discussed, namely the current administration’s efforts to stifle and dismiss science-based research and policy, were frightening.

As a science, technology, and international affairs major at Georgetown University, I am being trained to understand and hopefully make policy with a hard science background. In addition to the standard political science and international relations requirements, my major mandates that I take quantitative, high-level math, technology, and data analysis courses and lab-based science classes. I’m expected to understand hard science so I can authoritatively inform policymakers and actually understand the implications of my recommendations. The government’s dismissal of evidence-based science policy and disrespect for scientists who protect the public health is disheartening for me and my fellow students who hope to go into careers in the science field.

The panelists, all lab-trained scientists, began by discussing new congressional and executive efforts to block the use and dissemination of evidence-based scientific research in federal, state, local, and tribal policy. They touched on the deceptively named Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment (HONEST) Act of 2017 (which the American Humanist Association opposes) and explained how it would harm the advancement of science and evidence-based regulation.

The HONEST Act states that the EPA cannot take regulatory action unless the science the action relies on is “the best available science, specifically identified, and publicly available in a manner sufficient for independent analysis.” This sounds great in theory but really means that the EPA is restricted to using only publicly available data to implement regulation. However, many clinical trials used in regulation must be kept private to adhere to individual privacy laws and intellectual property rights. If the EPA and other regulatory organizations can no longer use this important data, policies will suffer. Laws will no longer be based on the best available data and policymakers will be unable to make truly informed decisions when implementing policy that affects millions of Americans. Considering our government was created to serve its constituents and has the duty to protect public health, this bill is concerning to say the least.

Besides not using all available data to make informed policy decisions, the Trump administration is restricting data collection itself. The federal government is one of the largest funders of university research centers, which conduct much of the research used in official reports and policy today. However, the administration is now cutting funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Academy of Sciences. Without money, these centers cannot collect the data they need to protect public health. Missing data, even for a short period, affects the practice of evidence-based science. If governments don’t have the resources to track temperature changes, carbon dioxide levels, or vegetation and species growth, for example, it is incredibly hard to spot patterns and therefore best prepare citizens to respond to natural disasters, pandemics, or events due to climate change.

Furthermore, the United States is a leader in scientific research, especially climate research. Without our data, other countries without the resources and infrastructure to track their own climate patterns will suffer. This administration’s willful ignorance of hard scientific evidence will not only harm the US but also damage the ability of countries who rely on our data to prepare for and respond to crises.

In addition, many upper-level science advising positions in all branches of government have still not been staffed. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy hasn’t had a director since Trump took office. Few scientists remain in the federal government to help make informed decisions about US science policy. Funding has been cut for academic science programs, and science students like me have few role models within government.

As humanists, we believe that the integrity of evidence-based scientific knowledge, where humans’ role in the world is properly evaluated and data comes from observation and study instead of doctrine and superstition, is essential. Unverifiable rhetoric, hearsay, or religious teachings have no place in the public sphere, especially when human lives are at stake. So if the federal government won’t do it, citizen scientists must step up. Although the government may not promote data collection, humanists and those who believe in the importance of evidence-based policy can do their own studies, advocate for science advisors at the local and state levels, and ensure that scientific knowledge stays dominant in public consciousness.