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Changing the Scientific Climate in the United States

4 MINS READApr 22, 2017 | 13:08 GMT
(Dana Romanoff/Getty Images)
David J. Wineland is a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, and a Nobel Prize winner. The current administration's policies could undermine the United States' reputation for innovation.
Summary

If knowledge is power, then ignorance is no less formidable, especially where technological innovation is concerned. The success of research and development initiatives depends in part on social acceptance, which in turn, relies on the public's understanding — of technology, the research behind it and the underlying scientific method. By the same token, misinformation or simple miscomprehension can undermine research and development. Take the anti-vaccination movement, for instance, a campaign based on data that has since been disproved or retracted. Through the power of misinformation, Europe and the United States experienced outbreaks of vaccine-preventable illnesses such as measles and whooping cough over the last year. 

To promote acceptance and combat misunderstanding, scientists and researchers must be able to clearly communicate complicated scientific and technical information in a comprehensible manner. Regulatory flexibility and proactive policy — two additional factors that help determine a country's competitiveness in innovation and technology — likewise require effective communication from the scientific community. Like any other, the science and technology sector is vulnerable to shifts in government policy and funding priorities. But if politicians don't understand the research, how can they make informed decisions about it? On April 22, participants in the March for Science will try to tackle this problem together, raising awareness about research practices and the scientific method with an eye to demystifying another controversial issue: climate science.

As important as government is for research and innovation, politics can interfere with the scientific process. Climate change, for example, is a highly politicized issue in the United States and a topic of seemingly endless debate, though the vast majority of the scientific community agrees on the matter. Acceptance has increased over the past few years; 62 percent of self-identified Republicans now say they believe that climate change is occurring, according to the University of Texas Energy Poll, up from 47 percent in 2015. But while most scientists cite man-made emissions as a contributing factor, a growing percentage of U.S. residents surveyed — 20 percent, compared with 5 percent in 2016 — believe that climate change is "mostly due to natural forces."

Political Science

The rhetoric of the recent presidential campaign and the policies of the new administration may help to explain this trend. Throughout the race for the White House, Donald Trump vowed to reverse many of the outgoing administration's environmental policies, such as the United States' participation in the Paris climate agreement. The president made good on one of his promises March 28 when he issued an executive order to roll back the Clean Power Plan, a legacy of Barack Obama's tenure in office. Because the policy was already tied up in the court system, the executive order's effect was minimal. Nonetheless, the move gave an early indication of the Trump administration's policy objectives with regard to climate change. Proposed cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA, the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Administrations' funding in the draft budget, similarly, could hinder research into the rate of and causes behind climate change.

Notwithstanding these developments, the administration itself appears to be divided over some aspects of environmental policy. The United States' withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, for instance, is up in the air as the president's advisers hash out the issue. (Senior officials in the administration were set to begin talks on the agreement's future April 18 but postponed them.) Even so, the administration has moved forward with a plan to pull out of the Green Climate Fund, an international initiative to support renewable energy and efficiency projects in the developing world.

The Power of Policy

Of course, climate science is a developing field, as all scientific fields are. Researchers will continue to make new discoveries and draw new conclusions regardless of the government's policies. Still, the Trump administration's stance on climate change will affect the United States' innovation and competitiveness in the field. The government will continue to influence social acceptance of climate science and data, perhaps limiting the country's prospects for developing related technologies in the process. Furthermore, many of the technologies with the greatest potential to revolutionize global energy usage — such as renewable energies, batteries and energy efficient innovations — are still in development and require government support to become economically viable. Without federal funding and public interest to sustain the projects, the technologies will never become competitive. Real or perceived threats to scientific research in the United States, whether through budget cuts or immigration policies, won't undermine the United States' competitiveness overall, but they could cause setbacks in select sectors such as climate science.

The people taking part in the March for Science are working to draw attention to this danger and its consequences for the U.S. scientific community as a whole, while promoting increased scientific awareness in general. Beyond data, scientists and researchers are also worried about less objective issues. If the rest of the international community perceives the country as uninterested in science, research and fact-based reasoning, will scientists from around the world still want to work with and in the United States?

So far, the answer is still overwhelmingly yes. The country's universities, government labs and private investment are too enticing to pass up, at least for the time being.

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