Scientists Urged to Leverage Evidence to Support Facts and Advance Policy

Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, and AAAS CEO Rush Holt answered questions about science under the Trump administration during a Jan. 26 webinar. | Stephen Waldron/AAAS

In a political climate increasingly challenging the value of science, scientists and engineers need to summon their scientific knowledge and play a larger role in helping inform public policy with solid evidence, said AAAS CEO Rush Holt during a webinar that explored the outlook for science and technology during the first 100 days of the Trump administration.

“This is not a time, if you care about the fate of the planet or of our republic, to retreat to the ivory tower,” said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, who also participated in the hour-long session hosted by AAAS on Jan. 26. “People need to be engaged.”

The most effective way for scientists across disciplines to stand up for science is by reaching out to elected officials at the local, state and federal levels to offer evidence and findings to advance understanding of pressing issues from human health to the environment, said Holt and Ornstein.

Engagement with members of Congress, for example, is most powerful when scientists transform scientific findings into real-life stories that use facts to demonstrate how a policy prescription will either hurt or improve the lives of constituents, the two said during the webinar, which drew more than 1,700 participants and nearly 300 questions.

“They’re going to listen to people in their districts, in the universities in their districts, in the research labs in their districts, in the companies in their districts that produce jobs,” Ornstein said.

Neither Holt nor Ornstein left any doubt that science and scientists face significant challenges. “The level of anxiety in the science community, in my long experience, has never been higher,” said Holt.

To combat that, Holt and Ornstein said, scientists need to make a special effort to reach out to lawmakers with a history of backing science and scientists to provide them with fact-rich narratives that they can use in defending scientific programs and policies.

“There’s a greater need than ever to explain the work that one does and explain why it’s important for expanding human knowledge or improving human lives,” said Holt.

Holt, who represented New Jersey’s 12th District for eight terms in the House after a career as a physicist, also encouraged scientists to consider running for office.

While politicians have for decades misused or discarded facts that do not match their ideological positions, Ornstein said, the degree to which the Trump administration has already demonstrated a disregard for scientific evidence has reached new levels.

Ornstein called on scientists to be vigilant against false information and evidence-free arguments. Holt noted the value of scientific expertise to correct inaccuracies and stressed that it must be delivered without condescension.

“We’re going to see a ‘war on scientists’ inside government, trying to root out those who are offering scientific information,” said Ornstein, pointing to the Trump administration’s recent announcement that it has placed all of the Environmental Protection Agency’s existing scientific data under review – including scientific evidence of climate change. The administration also put what an official called a temporary hold on the release of any new scientific research findings. 

Federal weather research is likely to face particular scrutiny, said Ornstein, adding that he also expects renewed efforts by the new administration to privatize the nation’s 17 federal research laboratories and the federal government’s space exploration programs.

Scientists have an opportunity to inform administration officials and members of Congress about the importance of weather information to the economic wellbeing of agricultural industry to ensure they can communicate the ramifications of limiting the collection and use of such weather data.

Ornstein also predicted science programs will face significant budget cuts, including across-the-board reductions at the National Science Foundation, with social science research a particular target.

Two factors – the ease of finding unsubstantiated and false information online and the rise of populism — have led to a growing distrust of authority that has released cascading questioning of science and scientists, he added. “The people who give you facts are themselves delegitimized,” Ornstein said.

Ornstein said this approach poses a threat to a political system built on debate and deliberation that has previously been based on a shared set of facts. “When you don’t start with a common set of facts or when you have people in positions of power who believe things that are fundamentally untrue and then try to delegitimize those who challenge them, you have a big problem,” he said.

Scientific societies such as AAAS, the world’s largest general scientific organization, provides scientists resources for communicating with lawmakers and the public and getting involved in policy, Holt said, pointing to the AAAS’ Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, the Science & Technology Policy Leadership Seminar and the programs held by the Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology.

“It’s not only incumbent on AAAS to stand up for science now. I think we’re the essential organization,” said Holt in an interview following the webinar.