University of Arizona neuroscientist John Hildebrand is signing petitions and ready to take to the streets in support of science.
He is worried, as are many scientists, about the rejection of scientific knowledge in public-policy decisions and about threats to cut spending for it.
That fear is shared by scientists worldwide, said Hildebrand, a University of Arizona regents professor who serves as foreign secretary for the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. He said he heard the concerns when he represented the academy at the G20 Summit in Germany in December.
He said his Russian colleagues were “coy” about the results of the presidential election, but his colleagues from other countries told him America was “losing its soul and going off the rails.”
Hildebrand and scientists across the nation are concerned about the rejection of scientific input into public policy and worried the Trump administration will gut climate science and environmental protection.
Scientists were also quick to denounce the president’s executive order to temporarily halt travel from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Hildebrand joined 18,000 U.S. scientists, including 50 Nobel Prize winners, in opposing the ban in a petition that was also endorsed by more than 150 scientific societies.
Hildebrand said he supports the idea of a March for Science, planned for April 22 in Washington, D.C., with local marches in various cities, including Tucson.
“I tell everyone I know that it’s not acceptable to sit on the sidelines and whine. We’ve got to be active. Scientists have to speak out about the fact that there is truth and there is fiction, evidence and imagined reality.”
Hildebrand said he is concerned about “the potentially disastrous effects of a blockade of immigration on our scientific, mathematical and medical research institutions.” He is also disturbed about President Trump’s appointees to the EPA, the Department of Education and elsewhere.
A “gag order” on federal scientists was the trigger for Josh Hoskinson, one of the organizers of a March for Science in Tucson.
Hoskinson is pursuing his master’s in ecology and evolutionary biology at the UA. He teaches biology at the university and is part of an outreach program that brings science to fourth- through 12th-grade classrooms in Tucson.
He sees the march as an exercise in scientific literacy and communication, and said the group is planning to host booths for local scientific groups.
“If you can’t communicate what you do in the lab, it’s pretty much pointless,” he said.
When he heard that scientists at the EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture were being told not to talk to the press or the public, “I said I must become civically engaged. I have to speak up and say the Trump administration cannot stifle science.”
The march is still being planned but will coincide with the national action on April 22, he said. Details will be announced on the group’s public “March for Science — Tucson” Facebook page, he said.
Climate scientist Jonathan Overpeck said he doesn’t know whether a March for Science will help or further polarize the debate, but he said scientists need to do a better job of bringing evidence-based knowledge into the public arena.
“The most important thing we can do is spend more time in society talking to policy makers and the general public, in a two-way dialogue, to deal with the shared challenges we have. With me it’s environment, it’s climate where I have special expertise to bring to the table,” Overpeck said.
“Voters, politicians, members of the public — they all have things to bring to the table, too. An understanding of the cultural, political and economic issues needs to be factored into the science, in making decisions about what to do.” he said.
Overpeck is a regents professor and director of the UA Institute of the Environment. He was a coordinating lead author of the Nobel Prize-winning report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
He said the climate message is taking hold, pointing to a study commissioned by the institute in “red-state Arizona,” which found overwhelming acceptance of the reality of a warming climate and support for doing something about it.
In that 2015 survey of 803 adult Arizona residents, more than 70 percent said they supported government action to reduce global warming.
Support hasn’t always translated into action, Overpeck said. “Factor in that there is a huge amount of money being put into play to influence politicians to be more fossil-fuel-industry friendly. The fossil-fuel industry is bullying our politicians to deny climate science and seeking other ways to insure inaction on climate.”
Dante Lauretta, who heads a NASA mission to an asteroid, signed the petition opposing the immigration ban and urged others to do so on his Twitter page where he also quoted Thomas Jefferson’s words from the Declaration of Independence: “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”
Lauretta said he signed the petition “as an academic who is concerned about our students, and our staff members and our faculty who may be affected.”
The petition support and the Jefferson quote were posted on “my personal Twitter account,” he noted.
“I try to be pretty restrained in what I say there. I just thought people needed to be reminded of what we rebelled against when we founded this nation,” Lauretta said.
Lauretta is also concerned about the level of support for science in upcoming budgets “given all the promises that have been made.”
The asteroid sample-return mission he leads — OSIRIS-REx — is in good shape, he said, and space exploration benefits from strong political support, including being one of the few programs mentioned in Trump’s inaugural address.
Lauretta also said Trump’s guarantee of a more efficient government, coupled with single-party control of the executive and legislative branches, could have one positive effect.
“The last time Congress has passed a budget in advance of the fiscal year was 1996. That should be an easy win for this president and this Congress, They’re in control and seemingly on the same page.”
Psychologist Lynn Nadel, chair of faculty at the University of Arizona, said many of his colleagues are concerned by the political climate. He set up an online space for faculty to air their views on the current situation.
Nadel noted in an email that he set up the computer group “with non-UA resources.”
He hopes it will stimulate discussion of how to respond to attacks on scientific knowledge. It’s too early to tell what forms that might take, he said.
“You can take it as a given, however, that faculty will strongly condemn attempts to muzzle science and fact-based approaches to policy,” he wrote in an email from Sydney, where he is currently on sabbatical.
Hildebrand said scientists have an obligation beyond their pursuit of knowledge.
“in good times, in normal times, of course it’s fine that scientists stick to their science, but these are not normal times. We have an obligation. We’re rational, evidence-based thinkers and we need to share our views.
We have to use what we know for the betterment of our society,” he said.