'Political' Science: It’s Déja Vu All Over Again

01/10/2018 10:12 pm ET
Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Wolfgang Panofsky, the National Medal of Science-winning physicist and son of the great art historian Erwin Panofsky, once said: “I believe that there is such a thing as objective scientific reality, and if you ignore that or try to misrepresent it in formulating policy, you do so at peril to the country.” Because of the denials of this truth in the George W. Bush and now the Trump administrations, the nation is increasingly at risk. In contrast, President Obama not only agreed with Panofsky, but he tried to embrace science through policy and action. Unfortunately, both of the recent Republican administrations have fostered anti-science and anti-intellectual attitudes and have taken actions against the scientific community that foreshadows real danger for the nation.

Within only one year in office, President Trump, has stirred up the ever-present, but often latent, hostility in America toward science and our scholars and intellectuals. It took the Bush administration a few years to do this; Trump has managed to achieve that goal in one. The Bush administration curtailed embryonic stem cell research; created FBI oversight of work that used “select agents” (bacteria or viruses that can cause disease, but which are necessary for research if we are to find cures, treatments, and antidotes for these diseases); removed distinguished scientists from a bioethics panels when they questioned Bush’s ideological positions; silenced climate change scientists; and deleted facts related to reproductive health from the Center for Disease Control’s website related to HIV prevention.  These are only a few policies of his administration that displayed a skepticism, if not hostility, to the idea of scientific truths.

President Obama, trying to reverse these actions, sent a memorandum to the heads of executive departments and agencies in 2008 making clear his commitment to the integrity of scientific results. “The public,” he said, “must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions. Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions” [Quoted in J.R. Cole, The Great American University, p. 428] In an address to the National Academy of Science, he said: “This work begins with an historic commitment to basic science and applied research, from the labs of renowned universities to the proving grounds of innovative companies.” [Source: ibid, p. 503].  Obama also appointed a stellar group of science advisors and invested in scientific infrastructure and scientific research as part of his economic stimulus package following the dramatic recession of 2007.

Now we have returned to a darker time of uncertainty for science. President Trump seems to be mimicking actions taken during Bush years.  As the legendary New York Yankee catcher, Yogi Berra, captured in his infinite wisdom: “It’s Déja vu all over again.” There is little evidence that President Trump and others in his administration or in the Republican controlled Congress, with exceptions like Tennessee’s Senator Lamar Alexander, have an interest in, knowledge about, or commitment to, science and technology.  They are willing, fortunately to rebuff the president in proposing a significant increase in health related research at the NIH.  The lack of understanding or interest in the role that scientific advances in fundamental knowledge and its applications make in the growth of our economy and the welfare of our people is reflected in recent observations by Rush Holt, a former member of Congress (now the chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science). He contrasted the Trump administration’s view that scientific research was essential for the future welfare of the nation (and his creation of the National Science Advisory Committee in 1951) Holt contrasts Truman and subsequent president’s commitment to science and technology with President Trump’s apparent “neglect, distrust and manipulation of evidence” and a hostility to matters of the intellect. The absence of a group of preeminent science advisors stand in sharp contrast to those appointed by presidents from Roosevelt to Obama. Richard Nixon was an exception.  He terminated the Science Advisory Committee in 1973, but Congress passed legislation creating the Office of Science and Technology Policy in 1976.

Evidence for Trump’s hostility can be found in a directive disclosed by The Washington Post that policy analysts working at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention have been told to stop using words such as “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based,” or “science-based” in their budget proposals for next year. [Source: Lena H. Sun and Juliet Eilperin, “CDC gets list of forbidden words…”The Washington Post, December 15, 2017]. The Department of Health and Human Services has removed information about LGBT Americans from its website, according to the Post reporters.

These anti-science views are illustrated, as well, in the Trump administration’s rejection of a virtual consensus in the scientific community on the impact that humans are having on global climate change; in the initial proposal to cut the National Institutes of Health budget by roughly 20 percent – and its proposed cuts in the budgets of the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies’ supporting university research activities.  It’s lack of understanding of how science is done in the United States can be found in the proposal to eliminate or cut still further the overhead costs associated with research projects that the government pays as part of research grants and contracts. Had these proposals gotten more traction in Congress, the results would have been both the elimination of a great deal of health and basic research at universities and the increase in tuition pricing that might be used to partially subsidize research.  The Trump administration, as well as many members of Congress, apparently does not realize that conducting research at our finest universities loses money.  A more effective and intelligent policy, initiated after World War II during the Truman administration, had the federal government cover the full audited cost of research.  The subsequent battle over full-cost reimbursement was lost several decades ago, but to eliminate entirely payment for the cost of maintaining research facilities and other overhead costs, such as the cost of complying with federal regulations of research, is simply unwise policy.  It would inevitably have highly negative consequences for the work that will produce discoveries that cure diseases and improve the health of our citizens. It would limit our efforts to build a stockpile of fundamental knowledge that down stream will help generate of new businesses and associated jobs. The outcomes of university research has an enormous economic and social impact – for every university initiated start-up company developing new pharmaceutical products or new sources of clean energy, as examples, the economy grows by the jobs created within the businesses themselves and then from the jobs created by the suppliers of those businesses.  Economic impact studies in Boston and in the Bay Area of California, particularly in Silicon Valley, have shown that this impact reaches into the many billions of dollars.  To cite just one example: the companies in Silicon Valley that were spawned from the work by faculty, students, and alums of Stanford University alone generated sales in 2010 of over $267 billion and had a total market capitalization of roughly $650 billion, which was almost half the sales and half the market capitalization of the top Silicon 150 companies.  It is undoubtedly far higher today. These companies include, among others, giants such as Cisco Systems, Google, Hewlett-Packard, and Sun Microsystems. The same impact can be found at the Research Triangle in North Carolina and to a growing extent in the high technology industries being developed in New York.  In short, investments in research have huge payoffs for the nation.

Unlike the Obama and past administrations, President Trump has yet to nominate a science advisor – a position of some importance in prior administrations.  There has been, to my knowledge, virtually no mention of a science policy from this administration and it’s unclear what voices the president will listen to when it comes to the national science and technology policy.  After one year in office, no nominations have been made for key leadership positions at the government research funding agencies.  Will the anti-science rhetoric yield to a more rational policy that supports in a tangible way the knowledge growth; will the administration let the scientific community, rather than politicians, determine the quality of the science produced, the priorities for investment in the future, and truth value of the work that discoveries made? That remains an open question, but if I were to advise the president, it is time for him to embrace the scientific efforts at our great research institutions, commit to their funding, and place people with impeccable scientific credentials in positions of leadership. Otherwise the support of science will wither away and become increasingly “political” science.

Finally, great scientific efforts often take a long time to complete. Breakthroughs in efforts to cure diseases or raise agricultural production by using CRISPR technologies; brain research and neuroscience research; investigations into the causes and consequences of the inequality of income and wealth, take years and decades to complete. Indeed, some of these foci of scientific attention may require most of the 21st century to reveal nature’s laws and how we might determine the causes of disease and be able, in an ethical and morally acceptable way, to alter the human genome by using scientific knowledge in a way that saves millions of lives lost to cancer, sickle-cell anemia, HIV-Aids, Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s, and various protein determined diseases.

Disease and public health problems are not linked to party affiliations.  There are a sufficient number of members of Congress who should support increased funding for research on both disease prevention and cures as well as the effort to enlarge the stockpile of knowledge that will eventually lead to new health and other discoveries that will propel our economy and improve our nation’s health. If the president won’t take the lead, Congress in a non-partisan way can take legislative action that forces President Trump either to embrace these pro-science efforts or to veto those pieces of legislation, which can then be over-ruled by Congress. It makes economic sense as well.  As the great supporter of science, Mary Lasker once said: “If you think research is expensive, try disease!”

If the road is long to find cures and treatments for disease, then the commitment must be vigilant. The scientific community, and the individual laboratories that educate new scientific talent and that initiate novel ways of approaching vexing scientific problems, requires a continuity of commitment of resources that cannot be dramatically altered from one administration to the next. There is no way to sustain these scientific efforts without some level of certainty about available resources. National health is not a partisan issue. Family members of Democrats and Republicans fall victims to cancer, heart disease, and various other life threatening illnesses – some caused by genetics; some by the environment; some of unknown origin. The two parties should enact a science policy that provides independence for scientific inquiry and freedom to take paths that differ from received wisdom.  It should embrace the development of extremely promising new technologies, such as CRISP-Cas9. A sound policy must depend heavily on the advice of the scientific and university communities and the resulting funding, or investments, should be clearly prioritized by those with deep knowledge of science and technology. A long-term investment in science and technology is needed; it should grow; and its stability should be assured. Investments in scientific and technological research at our great universities should not be viewed as part of the discretionary budget, but as a good bet on continued American preeminence in our universities and in the science and technology that change our lives and those of people throughout the world.

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