To March or Not to March: When Science Gets Political

Data is data, science is objective, and the facts should speak for themselves, right? The answer is… complicated. The choice of what to study can be very subjective, constrained by preconceived ideas, and driven by special interest groups, or funding, (often the same thing). Data has always been open to interpretation, and –  even before Kellyanne Conway coined the phrase – “the facts” were sometimes ignored in favor of “alternative facts.” But what’s scaring some scientists now is the anti-science, climate change denying stance of the Trump administration, and the fact that data is disappearing.

When reports appeared after January 20th that data was vanishing from government websites  (climate change; USDA animal abuse violations) it led to a mad scramble as scientists and concerned citizens jumped to archive pages of information before it could disappear. Indeed, while President Obama was still in office a few departments, anticipating such a purge, quietly began making backups of existing government pages. More recently, universities and organizations such as DataRefuge, have trained people to archive data and programmers are writing routines to detect changes to government websites in real time.

Data is “amoral” – neither Republican nor Democrat – but scientists are only human. While many prefer to hunker down, do their work, and leave politics alone, others feel compelled to respond. In November, over 2,300 scientists , including 22 Nobel winners, penned an open letter to President Trump asking him and Congress to “adhere to high standards of scientific integrity and independence in responding to current and emerging public health and environmental health threats.” Faced with a gag order at the EPA, scientists went public. When the National Parks Service was ordered to discontinue all press and social media contact, they started an alternative Twitter feed to keep news coming out.  Trump’s transition team recently asked the Department of Energy for lists of employees who worked on climate-change policy (a request the department has refused).

So what happens next? While the Trump administration may continue to test the waters with future data scrubs, gag orders and entire removal of website pages, the odds are good now that the news will leak in advance or that the data has been archived already.  More importantly, there is already what some in the field are calling the “Trump Effect” – that is a feeling of imminent danger or urgency pushing scientists to get active.  Plans are in the works now for a national march of scientists on Earth Day, April 22.   Will it equal the Women’s March of January? Perhaps not in size, but if it matches the passion, the attention drawn to a worthy topic, or the message it sends to the current administration, then it will accomplish a great deal.


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