Scientists Sound the Alarm

Trump’s cabinet picks, other policy signals lead scientists and physicians to issue warnings on direction of incoming administration.

December 20, 2016
 
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Sign at protest over Trump nominees for science-related positions

President-elect Donald Trump ran a campaign that left many scientists guessing about his intentions on science policy. After a series of cabinet announcements and statements from the transition team, however, have many scientists and physicians are worried.

A number of academics, physicians and medical students are speaking out against Trump’s pattern of selecting officials who deny climate science, oppose policies backed by many experts and scare scientists in federal agencies who disagree with Trump. In some cases, those voices are dissenting from large professional organizations that have endorsed at least some of his personnel decisions.

In the last month, Trump has announced an opponent of the Affordable Care Act -- as well as embryonic stem cell research -- as his pick for secretary of health and human services, an ally of the oil and gas industry to head the Environmental Protection Agency, the CEO of ExxonMobil as his secretary of state, and a former governor who promised to eliminate the Department of Energy as the head of that agency.

Meanwhile, an adviser to the Trump transition team suggested that National Aeronautics and Space Administration should no longer carry out climate research. The Trump transition team also asked the Energy Department for a list of employees and contractors who participated in meetings on climate change policies -- a request to which an Energy Department spokesman replied, “We will not be providing any individual names to the transition team.” And the president-elect himself also suggested in an interview this month that the science of climate change, a consensus among researchers, is in doubt.

The signals being sent by the incoming administration are prompting scientists and doctors, including some who have been previously apolitical, to become more politically active.

David Hastings, a marine scientist at Eckerd College, along with other Florida scientists, penned a letter before the election asking the then candidate for a meeting to discuss the evidence of climate change.

Hastings said since the election there’s been no indication that Trump is taking the threat of climate change seriously.

“The folks he has chosen don’t bode well, to be blunt,” he said of Trump’s announced cabinet picks. “This to me is frightening -- to have the reins of the federal government handed over to the fossil fuel industry.”

The fact that so many of those picks have a history of opposing the mission of the very agencies they are set to lead is pushing academics like Hastings to speak out about those choices.

“We don’t want to be doing this. We’d much rather be in our labs working with our students, interpreting the data, doing the work we’re trained to do,” he said.

Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said science societies and organizations have become much more sophisticated in understanding how science can be politicized and are taking steps to prepare for possible interference.

One part of being prepared for political interference is to write up the standards that the scientific community will press a new administration and Congress to honor. Since Election Day, groups of scientists have undertaken multiple efforts to do just that. Within weeks of Trump’s victory, more than 2,300 scientists -- including 22 Nobel prize winners -- had signed an open letter calling on the president-elect to adhere to standards of scientific integrity and independence. The letter also called for federal agencies to be run by leaders with a history of respecting science in decision making and for scientists to receive the necessary resources to carry out research in the public interest.

More recently, 10,000 women scientists signed on to a pledge to support inclusivity and equality in their field.

“We reject the hateful rhetoric that was given a voice during the U.S. presidential election and which targeted minority groups, women, LGBTQIA, immigrants and people with disabilities, and attempted to discredit the role of science in our society,” the pledge states. “Many of us feel personally threatened by this divisive and destructive rhetoric and have turned to each other for understanding, strength and a path forward.”

Jane Zelikova, a University of Wyoming professor currently on leave for a fellowship at the Department of Energy, said the pledge was not targeted directly at the incoming administration. But she said the commitments stated in the letter spoke to the fears many scientists feel regarding the president-elect’s policies. She and other organizers hope that as a group the scientists signing the letter can speak out when their values are under threat.

“It feels better when it’s you and a few friends. And when you have the backing of 11,000 people, it feels like you can say things and it’s not too scary,” she said.

This month in San Francisco, hundreds of scientists and activists took to the streets outside the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting to protest the positions of Trump and his cabinet personnel on climate change.

Others are taking concrete steps, undertaking a frantic effort to copy federal climate data onto independent data servers in case it is removed or interfered with -- a campaign spurred by the comments regarding NASA and climate research. Halpern said his organization is spreading the word about the efforts, but they are driven at the grassroots level.

“It’s meteorologists and urban planners and other rank-and-file scientists who rely on this data every day, who would be most impacted by its disappearance, who are the ones stepping up to the plate,” he said.

Some high-ranking Democrats have at least rhetorically taken a stand against Trump’s emerging science agenda. California Governor Jerry Brown said that if the new administration discontinues collection of climate data, his state would “launch its own damn satellite.”

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, said in an op-ed for Inside Higher Ed that the connections between the incoming administration and the fossil fuel industry mean the government cannot be counted on to resist the threat of science denial.

“That makes it all the more important for those entities outside government … to join together and step up a common defense,” he wrote.

Physicians Speak Out

Trump campaigned on a promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and his pick for HHS secretary, conservative Georgia Representative Tom Price, appears to confirm his seriousness of following through on that promise. But the endorsement of Price’s nomination from major medical associations is sparking a backlash from physicians and medical students.

The selection of Price, a former orthopedic surgeon, received praise from the American Medical Association, the Association of American Medical Colleges and the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Medical students also are becoming increasingly outspoken as the plans of the Trump administration take shape. The American Medical Student Association opposed the Price nomination in a statement, as did Students for a National Health Program.

Vanessa Van Doren, a third-year medical student at Case Western Reserve University and board member of Students for a National Health Program, said she expected that the medical community would band together to oppose the nomination.

“That they’re saying nothing or actually endorsing the pick is terrible,” she said.

Van Doren’s organization is circulating a phone script and email template for other medical students to contact the AAFP about the endorsement and encouraging them to add their names to an open letter condemning the AMA and AAMC endorsements.

“If medical organizations claim to care about access to care and protecting vulnerable populations, they need to stick with that and oppose individuals who would be a disaster for those causes,” she said.

Atul Grover, executive vice president of the AAMC, said the organization does not fully endorse or agree with Price’s entire agenda -- it opposes repealing the Affordable Care Act without a replacement that would provide the same level of coverage that Americans receive now. But he said the AAMC believes Price has the professional background and experience working with the medical education field that would allow the group to make its case for its priorities.

“Is he qualified to lead the agency because of that background? Yes. Are his views consistent with those of our organization, our institutions and the people within them? Not all of them,” Grover said.

The AMA’s public stance on the nomination in particular has prompted some physicians to share their concerns. Manik Chhabra, a physician and clinical researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, signed a public letter along with his Penn colleagues Navin Vij and Jane M. Zhu dissenting with the AMA endorsement, saying the association “does not speak for us.” Since the letter was posted on Medium, more than 5,800 physicians and medical professionals have signed on.

Chhabra, who works with patients who have substance abuse disorders, said the policy changes Price is proposing don’t serve the interests of his patients, and he worries the AMA endorsement could be equated with physicians in general.

“Changes that have happened to our health care system, while imperfect, have really changed the lives of our patients and our ability to care for our patients, especially those who are most vulnerable,” he said. “The plans Dr. Price is proposing are ones that will roll back a lot of those protections.”

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