What’s Really at Stake in Trump’s War on Science


World Politics Review 25th April 2017  

On Dec. 17, 1972, American astronaut Eugene Cernan paused to look up at Earth. At over 240,000 miles away it was small enough to be blotted out by an outstretched thumb. A few moments later he would enter the lunar lander, close the hatch and blast off to begin Apollo 17’s journey back to Earth. Cernan was the last person to leave footprints on the moon. Since then, humans have never ventured farther than 240 miles from Earth’s surface, let alone return to its only natural satellite.

History has come to judge the Apollo program as a freak alignment of science, politics and popular will—a one-off and ultimately one-way ticket to the moon. Dreams of establishing a permanent base on the lunar surface and then colonizing Mars are now retold through black-and-white footage of men with white shirts and crew cuts manning mission-control consoles, or bravely striding across launch pads in silver pressure suits. 

All of which makes recent reports that U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration is considering embarking on a space program that would return humans to the moon intriguing. The Apollo program is often held up as the epitome of American scientific achievement and exceptionalism. It is still the case that the U.S. leads the world in terms of scientific innovation. The country spends more on science, has been awarded more science Nobel Prizes, and publishes significantly more scientific papers than any other nation. Is Trump planning to build on such excellence and champion U.S. science? Nothing could be further from the truth, as recent events demonstrate that he represents a major threat to the scientific capabilities of the United States. 

It is hard to fully appreciate the level of ambivalence and antagonism that is being directed at U.S. climate science, environmental protection, medical research and public health by the Trump administration, which at times appears to be operating within a worldview incompatible with modern science or even rationality. Rather than dreaming of returning to the moon and restoring the glory days of the mid-20th century, Trump and the rest of his administration need to come back to Earth and use U.S. science to urgently address the needs of humanity today.

Climate change represents an existential challenge not just to the U.S., but to contemporary globalized, industrialized civilization. For the first time, the 2015 Paris climate agreement united the U.S., China and all other industrialized nations around the effort to fight global warming. While a great deal still needs to be done to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, a path was agreed along which progress can be made. The election of Trump at best represents the emergence of a major obstacle along the way, or at worst, the obliteration of this approach. 

Carbon dioxide pollution is an inseparable drawback of burning fossil fuels, because there is still no cost-effective way to capture it from exhausts, be they vehicle tailpipes or coal-fired power plants. Consequently, the only way to limit global warming is to significantly reduce the use of fossil fuels. That means not exploiting hundreds of billions of dollars worth of reserves. The Trump administration appears to be working around this limitation by downplaying the risks of global warming, or even disputing that humans have any role in it at all.

Prior to his presidential bid, Trump wrote a number of tweets and made a litany of statements that revealed his clear skepticism of the impact humans have had on the climate. He claimed that climate change is a hoax, and in an infamous tweet from November 2012, wrote: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive”—a statement he later denied making while on the campaign trail. For a while, some observers hoped that this rhetoric would not be followed with meaningful action—that it and the “Trump Digs Coal” signs would be packed away along with the bunting, balloons and ballyhoo after the election campaign.

Such hopes were short-lived. Trump, on the heels of his electoral success, appointed Myron Ebell, the director of global warming and international environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, to head up the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) transition team. The EPA is the United States’ most important federal agency with regard to climate change, as it is tasked with delivering the Clean Power Plan that shutters the nation’s most polluting coal-fired power stations. The Competitive Enterprise Institute is a think tank that has pushed for weakening government regulations on emissions. Ebell has been described as a “top climate skeptic.” It would be hard to find someone more committed to disputing the overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are dangerously warming Earth’s climate. 

But Trump seems to have found that person in Scott Pruitt, who on Feb. 17 became the 14th administrator of the EPA. Pruitt, previously the attorney general of Oklahoma, has some experience in dealing with the EPA, having been involved in 13 lawsuits against it, some of which are outstanding. This means that Pruitt is currently suing the agency that he now leads, in a case that attempts to stop the EPA from reducing greenhouse gas emissions and limiting air and water pollution. Further irony can be found in Pruitt’s recent denial that increased carbon dioxide causes global warming, as a moment browsing the EPA’s website will easily refute that. Some have argued that Pruitt’s appointment is like putting an arsonist in charge of a fire department. But at least arsonists actually believe in fire and the risks it poses. 

Emboldened by Trump’s election, Congress will now debate bill H.R.861, which would terminate the EPA on Dec. 31, 2018. It’s very unlikely that this bill will ever be passed, but the threats the current administration poses to the effectiveness of the EPA are abundantly clear. There are myriad other less dramatic ways that federal environmental protections can be removed. Clearly this matters internationally because while the U.S. is no longer the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide—that accolade has been handed to China—it still commands tremendous influence politically and economically.

There is the real possibility that the U.S. will just walk away from all and any climate change obligations, and while it may be hard to buck the global economic trends already depressing coal prices, Trump will be able to exercise significant powers in attempting to resurrect the dirtiest of fossil fuels at home and abroad. He started on March 28, signing an executive order to “promote energy independence and economic growth,” which will roll back the Clean Power Plan and rescind a raft of Obama’s executive orders on climate change. 

One potentially embarrassing impediment to Trump’s agenda is the many federal agencies that continually produce evidence that clearly shows that humans are changing the climate, with potentially catastrophic implications. 

NASA is one of the world’s most important organizations for climate science, with the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Jet Propulsion Laboratory making fundamental contributions to the understanding of the human role in climate change. Despite this, some Trump advisers have said that NASA’s program on climate science should be defunded and that the agency should focus exclusively on space, leaving climate research to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This argument has been made before, fueling previous Republican attempts to end the NOAA’s climate science activities, but it never cut much ice. Now, however, given a potential 17 percent reduction in NOAA funding that would slash research programs and satellite systems that are central to both weather monitoring and climate research, a straightforward attempt to reduce America’s overall abilities to undertake climate science becomes apparent.

While other nations operate satellites and conduct weather and climate monitoring and modeling, none can individually compete with the breadth and scope of activities undertaken by NASA and the NOAA. Just in terms of funding, NASA’s $19 billion annual budget towers over the European Space Agency’s $6 billion or the $2 billion spent each year by the China National Space Administration. If the U.S. reduces funding for the programs required to launch and operate these satellites and conduct the necessary data analysis, humanity will see a net decrease in its abilities to understand how Earth’s climate works, how humans are affecting it, and the long- and short-term consequences.

Given the depth of scientific expertise within the U.S. and the overwhelming consensus among climate scientists, it may be hoped that other science advisers might offer Trump some vital balancing input. Unfortunately, those hopes currently seem misplaced. Princeton atomic physicist William Happer met with Trump in January and has been widely discussed as a potential scientific adviser to the president—a development that was received with some dismay by the climate science community: Happer does not produce any climate science himself and continues to recycle long-debunked arguments in favor of burning more fossil fuels. He has described climate scientists as a “glassy-eyed cult” and the EPA as “completely bonkers.” Happer previously made headlines in 2015 when he was caught in a Greenpeace sting operation in which he attempted to hide payments from a fictional fossil fuel company in return for a report that would cast skepticism on human’s role in climate change.

As worrying as such developments are, in some respects they are less troubling than other stances adopted by the Trump team that appear to demonstrate ideological opposition to the very role of science in policymaking and society.

Take Vice President Mike Pence, who disputes the modern theory of evolution via natural selection. He instead subscribes to modern variations of creationism, such as intelligent design, which posits that life was designed by some intelligent entity. Unsuccessful Republican presidential primary candidate Ben Carson—Trump’s appointee for secretary of housing and urban development—is a retired neurosurgeon, and so one might have hoped that he would be a voice for science within the administration. However, Carson goes further than Pence, disputing that evolution can even occur and claiming that the universe was not created during the Big Bang, but rather in six days—a literal interpretation of the Old Testament creation account.

Perhaps one could assume that it doesn’t really matter if politicians have beliefs and opinions about evolution that are clearly incompatible with science. If so, it would be wise to revisit the story of Trofim Lysenko, a Stalin-era Soviet agrobiologist whose skepticism of Mendelian genetics—one of the central elements of modern evolutionary theory—swayed the Bolshevik political class, holding back biology and crop production for decades in the Soviet Union. Politics trumped science, even when there was abundant evidence that Lysenko’s theories were wrong, because his notions of collective evolution fit well with Stalinist ideology. 

The opinions of Pence and other Republican politicians are of unarguable relevance when it comes to the role of embryonic stem cells in medical research. Embryonic stem cells, which are capable of differentiating into all of the human body’s specialized cells, hold tremendous promise as the basis of treatments for spinal and brain injuries, Alzheimer’s disease, cancers and a host of other conditions that currently frustrate medical science. These cells are harvested from aborted fetuses, and there has been a long-running and passionate campaign to end their use in the United States. In 2001, then-President George W. Bush signed an executive order that limited their use—which President Barack Obama later reversed—and Pence has argued in the past for all federal embryonic stem-cell research to be stopped.

Thus far, there is no clear indication of Trump’s intentions with regard to Obama’s reversal of Bush’s executive order, so the future of U.S. stem cell research remains uncertain. As a member of the International Stem Cell Forum, the U.S. plays an important role in international efforts to develop new therapies based on adult and embryonic stem cells. Given the highly collaborative nature of medical research, putting the brakes on America’s participation in international projects will have ramifications that extend far beyond its borders.

At the risk of gross oversimplification, the Trump administration’s hostility to climate science can be explained in terms of economics, and its opposition to evolutionary biology and stem cell research in terms of religion. What is far more puzzling is Trump’s relationship to, for lack of better word, reality—a rapport that has serious implications for the fate of scientific research and innovation. In his first 90 days of office, Trump has made over 390 false or misleading claims.

When the facts don’t fit the theory, Trump seems to have no qualms with changing the facts. Science does produce facts that can change, but only on the basis of evidence. If you can provide an alternative theory that better explains the available evidence—all of it, not just cherry-picked portions of it—then your theory and its attendant facts will become established. If they hang around long enough, they will appear in university, college and school textbooks.

Trump appears to not get his information from such sources, preferring outlets such as the far-right Breitbart News, founded by Steve Bannon, who Trump appointed as White House chief strategist, or Infowars, run by Alex Jones, from which Trump has appeared to recycle conspiracy theories. It is worrying for Trump to be even tangentially influenced by a character such as Jones, who has previously claimed, often quite vocally, that 9/11 was a U.S. government “false flag” operation, and that the Apollo lunar landings were faked, as was the Sandy Hook mass shooting. Trump doesn’t espouse such beliefs, but he has appeared on Infowars and subscribes to other conspiracy theories. Of those, his views on vaccinations are profoundly worrying. 

While Americans cheered the early successes of the U.S. space program in the early 1960s, millions of children in the United States were contracting measles each year. Thousands died. The introduction of vaccines rapidly decreased the incidence of the disease until it was effectively eradicated from the country in the 1990s. While regions such as North America and Europe have made great strides in reducing infections, some nations are still ravaged by the disease. Measles killed 134,200 people globally in 2015, but the death toll would have been much higher without the effective vaccine, which is estimated to have saved over 20 million lives worldwide between 2000 and 2015.

Vaccination programs work on the basis of herd immunity. Not everyone can receive a vaccine, and not everyone who is vaccinated will prove to be immune. But with sufficiently high rates of vaccination, outbreaks can remain isolated because the chances of an infected person meeting another susceptible person are very small. 

In 1999, the medical journal The Lancet published the article “Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children.” So began a saga that would involve scientists, medical boards, celebrities and, eventually, the president of the United States. That’s because beneath the cryptic title was a striking finding: The use of MMR—the vaccine that inoculates children against measles, mumps and rubella—was responsible for the increase in reported autism cases. The lead author, Andrew Wakefield, a British doctor and medical researcher, argued that by delivering the three vaccines in a single shot, the immune systems of young children were irrevocably altered, making them more likely to develop developmental disorders such as autism.

Subsequent studies have never been able to reproduce Wakefield’s findings, which were debunked numerous times in the years that followed, causing him to be struck off the medical register and barred from practicing medicine in the United Kingdom. The Lancet later retracted the paper with a further investigation uncovering Wakefield’s falsification of data, which led to an editorial concluding that the entire thesis of a link between MMR and autism was in fact an elaborate fraud.

Still, repeated media coverage continued to focus on the risks of MMR, with reckless speculation over a possible link to autism. Celebrities such as American actress Jenny Mcarthy campaigned against MMR and other vaccines with Wakefield’s active participation. As a consequence, rates of immunization in the U.S. and the U.K. dropped, leading to a rapid increase in incidents of measles in both countries. In 2012, an American woman contracted measles and died—the first measles fatality in the U.S. since 2000.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, some people continue to believe that there is a link between MMR and autism. This includes Trump, who has made multiple statements repeating MMR-conspiracy talking points. Trump followed up such statements with a meeting in Trump Tower in January with long-time anti-vaccination campaigner Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. After their meeting, Kennedy claimed that Trump wanted him to lead a vaccine safety board. While this is something that the Trump administration later refused to confirm, the potential risks of meddling with effective U.S. vaccination programs are clear.

In denying the robust science surrounding vaccines, Trump threatens the lives of many American children, and the legacy of what should be acknowledged as one of the greatest scientific achievements of the United States: The measles vaccine used today to protect children around the world is the same vaccine created by American scientist Maurice Hilleman in 1968. Hilleman developed over 40 vaccines, eight of which are still used worldwide today. He is credited with saving more livesthan any other medical scientist of the 20th century.

Just like climate change and evolutionary biology, Trump has access to the world’s leading experts on vaccination safety, who would be able to quickly disabuse him of his erroneous ideas. Politicians don’t need to be scientists, but they must listen to them and have at least a basic understanding of how science functions—not to mention a belief that it exists. In the absence of such a relationship, the U.S., and the world, risks being cast adrift on a sea of alternative facts and conspiracy theories, in which knowledge is derived by looking only at some of the evidence and ignoring everything else.

One may hope that constitutional checks and balances will limit some of the damage Trump can do to scientific consensus and innovation. Programs such as the Clean Power Plan cannot be simply revoked, and there are likely to be multiple and lengthy legal battles ahead. The EPA is viewed favorably by most Americans, a position that will likely temper efforts to dismantle it. Federal budget cuts may cause scientists to be laid off, but they will likely find work in universities and abroad. In American universities, the tenure system ensures that individual academics will be insulated from direct political meddling in academic affairs—but as Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann would testify, that gives scant protection against continual harassment by a range of fossil fuel interests.

From an international perspective, political assaults on science in the U.S. will not alter programs in the other nations leading the way on research and innovation. Those include South Korea, which has ramped up its science funding to over 4 percent of GDP, and China, which now has more researchers than the U.S. and, on its current trajectory, is set to lead the world in publication of scientific papers. Beijing continues to invest in science and technology because it understands the benefits they produce. And given the country’s commitment to space exploration, the next human to walk on the surface of the moon could well be Chinese, not American. 

Of greater importance is China’s global leadership in renewable technologies, as its leaders fully grasp the risks and opportunities of climate change. Given Trump’s focus on Chinese competition, this is perhaps the one lesson on science that he should understand—and that he would be wise to accept: That his administration will struggle to make America great again when it is led by individuals so ambivalent to facts and ignorant of the science that made the country great in the first place.