WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has long perpetuated the debunked theory that vaccines cause autism. In January, while still president-elect, he went as far as to request that Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a fellow vaccine skeptic, lead a commission to investigate vaccine safety.
This disregard for science is among the reasons Sabrina Solouki, a second-year Ph.D. student in immunology and infectious disease at Cornell University, made a pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., on Saturday for the March for Science, a mass protest to rally scientists against what they see as Trump’s backward policies.
“The administration, by forming this safety commission, isn’t really doing a good job of listening to science — of science-informed policy,” she told The Huffington Post.
Solouki also wants to unite the scientific community, to push for it to do a better job of engaging with the public at large, and to send a clear message that scientists are against Trump’s proposed cuts to science.
“Scientists, in general, need to come out and support the march so that people understand that we’re here and we really want to better society,” she said.
As president of Cornell’s Advancing Science And Policy group, Solouki helped organize for more than 100 Cornell graduate science students to travel to Washington, D.C., for the event, which falls on Earth Day, the 47th anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement. Cornell’s group arrived Friday on three buses.
“If people don’t trust or accept science and scientists, we won’t be able to translate our work in labs, fields, etc. to the people who can benefit from what we find,” said Morgan Carter, a Ph.D. candidate in plant pathology at Cornell.
Under the current climate, aspiring scientists may be discouraged by competition for a shrinking pool of federal research funding, she said.
Since taking office, Trump has shaken the field of science, both with his proposal for sweeping cuts at the Environmental Protection Agency and other vehicles for research funding. His “skinny” budget, released in mid-March, proposed axing at least 31 percent of the EPA’s funding, eliminating the federal monies for the National Academy of Science and gutting underwriting for research at a bevy of executive agencies. Vox called it “everything scientists have been fearing.” Science, the magazine published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said the budget “squeeze civilian science agencies.” The Washington Post noted that scientists were “conspicuously missing from Trump’s government.”
People do science because we’re interested in solving problems that no one else wants to solve. As a consequence, society moves forward. Adrian Rivera-Reyes, cancer biology PhD student at UPenn
Trump’s hard-line immigration policies rattled science academia even more. The White House’s executive order temporarily blocking travelers from a handful of Muslim majority countries ― a move high-level Trump surrogates admitted would be a first step to establishing the so-called Muslim ban he touted during his campaign ― shook a field filled with graduates of schools across the Middle East.
“People are scrambling right now in the scientific community to figure out all the ways it plays out and what it means for grad students, innovation and the private sector,” Wendy Naus, executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations, told HuffPost in January. “If it is a glitch or a blip, and the outrage is heard and things go back, the damage isn’t done. But if it is the new normal, then, yeah, we are risking our competitive advantage. These are fundamentally things we’ve never confronted before.”
Even in his own administration, Trump has failed to hire to fill science positions. The president has yet to hire top advisers on technology of science, according to The New York Times, and has so far only named Michael Kratsios, the former chief of staff to Silicon Valley investor and campaign backer Peter Thiel, as deputy technology officer.
“We are all sitting on the edge of our seats hoping nothing catastrophic happens in the world,” Phil Larson, a former senior science and technology adviser to the Obama administration, told the Times. “But if it does, who is going to be advising him?”
Even among those students who don’t fear losing employment opportunities under the Trump administration, that attitude and outlook on science has bred dismay.
Nikhil Krishnaswamy, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in computer science at Brandeis University, isn’t concerned for his employment after he finishes school in June. But he said he planned to march in Boston, Massachusetts, on Saturday to show solidarity with other scientists.
“I’m in a field that’s probably less likely to be affected by the political considerations taken by the Trump administration,” the 30-year-old told HuffPost by phone on Friday. “But I do feel like there is a possibility for all of us to stand together and stand up for a worldview that’s based in truth and facts.”
His work focuses on helping computers interpret language semantics by decoding large data sets ― essentially improving the way humans talk to computers. Krishnaswamy said he hopes marching will remind him of the potential political ramifications of his work.
“What I do with technology is going to shape how we interact with each other, how we interact with our leaders and how we interact with technology in the future,” he said. “I have to make sure the technology I build will not have an ill effect on the freedoms we enjoy as Americans, and aren’t going to infringe on our rights or allow the government to do so either.”
Adrian Rivera-Reyes, 24, bristles when conservative pundits attack scientists as hungry for glory, fame or grant money.
“No one ever comes to mind who says specifically, ‘I want to do this because I want to be famous,’ or ‘I want to be well-known or famous or considered an intellectual,’” the third-year Ph.D. student in cancer biology at the University of Pennsylvania told HuffPost by phone on Friday. “People do science because we’re interested in solving problems that no one else wants to solve. As a consequence, society moves forward.”
The Puerto Rico native plans to march with a group of Latino scientists and students on Saturday. Trump’s proposed budget cuts risk eliminating funding for future work when he graduates, he said.
“It’s very worrying that I will graduate and President Trump will still be president,” he said. “I’m thinking, well, what am I going to do? Will there be jobs for me? It feels very real, more real than it used to be.”
The Trump administration’s hostility toward Muslim immigrants and travelers, including the ban on visitors from a handful of majority Muslim countries, jeopardize the future of his scientific research, Rivera-Reyes said.
“In science, that hurts,” he said. “We are definitely a very large and diverse group of people, and just singling out people for their religious beliefs like that is wrong.”
Carter echoed that sentiment.
“[S]cience doesn’t stop at country borders, because scientists collaborate with other scientists in government, industry, and academia all over the world,” she told HuffPost. “And science issues aren’t limited to individual countries. A disease that is in one country doesn’t wait for a visa to go into another country and we have to work together to tackle common problems.”
It’s for this reason, she added, that the scientific community has been so outraged by Trump’s travel bans and anti-immigration rhetoric.
“Science is a very international community and movement limitations can prevent collaborations or communication, like conferences,” Carter said.
Sean Terry, a Ph.D. student in astrophysics at Catholic University and a research assistant at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said that Trump’s signing of a bill last month to authorize $19.5 billion in funding for the agency in the 2018 budget year has given him and others in the field of space science a certain level of comfort. It’s his environmental colleagues, in particular at the EPA, that Terry said he’s “more scared” about.
Although Terry expected the March for Science would draw a smaller crowd than the Women’s March back in January, he considers the message equally as important. And his hope is that at least some people denying or trying to weaken the importance of science will change their tone.
“I’m marching just to show my commitment to science and science literacy, and improving science literacy in younger individuals,” he said.