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AAAS President, CEO Say Concerns about Science Are Unprecedented

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During the 2017 AAAS Annual Meeting, AAAS President Barbara Schaal spoke about researchers' concerns over the possible impacts of a new presidential administration on science. | Atlantic Photography

BOSTON — Researchers are concerned at unprecedented levels about how a new presidential administration may undermine scientific work and delay its benefits, AAAS President Barbara Schaal and AAAS CEO Rush Holt said at a press event at the AAAS Annual Meeting.

“It used to be when someone would say they were concerned about the state of science, they were talking about funding for research … these concerns about funding are not the ones being brought to me,” said Holt. “What I hear now are concerns about what I would call an ongoing trend that goes back many years, even decades, where ideology and ideological assertions have been crowding out evidence in public and private debates and policymaking.”

“It’s reaching a place where people are truly troubled about what this means for the practice of science and the ability of science to bring its benefits to the population at large,” he added.

The challenging political climate in the U.S. makes it more important than ever that scientists work with policymakers to keep the scientific process strong, said Schaal. “This is not so that we can have our research grants, this is for the well-being of our nations and our global citizenry.”

“The things that stimulate well-being, that give us a better life — adequate food, excellent health care, jobs — many of those things have basic science as an underpinning,” she said.

Scientists are especially concerned about the impacts of a recent restrictive U.S. executive order on immigration and visas, Schaal said, calling the United States “extraordinarily privileged” to have benefitted from international researchers who travel and work in the U.S.

Schaal said that the delay in filling chief scientific posts in U.S. agencies, including that of the presidential scientific adviser, is worrying. “This is a concern to us not so much because of the timing at this point, but because of the silence.”

“There hasn’t been much buzz about who these individuals might be,” Schaal said, “and our concern is that the government won’t have the scientific expertise that it will need to make the kind of standard policies that are going to be coming through Congress and by executive order.”

Having strong federal scientific leadership in place is also essential to advise during a crisis, Schaal noted, such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, or the 2011 Fukushima Daichii nuclear power plant disaster in Japan.

The 183rd Annual Meeting officially opens tonight with the presidential address by Schaal, a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and former Science Envoy for the State Department. The meeting in Boston is expected to draw nearly 10,000 attendees from more than 60 countries.

[Associated image: Atlantic Photography]