By endorsing the overblown rhetoric that science is under siege, we play into the narrative that the media is just another partisan actor.
It may surprise you to learn that the Trump administration has, on quite a number of occasions, championed or advanced science. It has strongly backed increased funding for quantum computing and promoted artificial intelligence research. The Trump Food and Drug Administration has sought to regulate e-cigarettes based on scientific findings about their addictive potential. The National Cancer Institute under Trump has pushed for increased data sharing and shifted more funding to external researchers. NASA has launched multiple science instruments just this year and has more in the pipeline. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is rolling out a new weather model.
But the dominant narrative is that the administration is conducting a “war on science” and that science is “under siege.” As a science journalist, I often get asked questions like, “Wow, it’s a really bad time for science, isn’t it?” I find myself explaining that, actually, American science is better-funded, by some measures, than it has ever been, and the U.S. federal science workforce remains probably the most impressive scientific organization the planet has ever seen. A feared exodus of scientists out of the government or even the country has hardly amounted to a trickle at most agencies. (At the Environmental Protection Agency — probably the most politically embattled science agency — more than 250 scientists have retired, taken buyouts, or quit, but several non-science agencies have seen larger staff reductions.)
Many decry proposed science agency budget cuts that sprout reliably under the Trump administration each year, like mushrooms after a spring rain. While such cuts would be drastic if enacted, the administration proposes similar cuts to many other discretionary programs — food stamps and public housing, for example — as well as Medicare and Medicaid. There doesn’t seem to be an anti-science agenda per se; there seems to be an agenda to cut spending on almost everything not related to the military or security. Similarly, while science and scientists definitely suffered during the recent government shutdown, they were collateral damage, not direct targets. And of course, Congress has rejected all these cuts; science agency budgets have generally remained steady or increased since Trump was elected.
The American conversation around science is much bigger than any president. Much of the science we taxpayers fund involves long-timeline activities that cannot be supported at universities. Did you know, for example, that since the 1930s, through Republican and Democrat administrations and even a world war, U.S. Forest Service scientists have designed and conducted a forest inventory that is the envy of the world? It’s unglamorous, non-breaking-news work, but it provides a crucial baseline for all kinds of research and decision making, and it has been replicated by other countries. By the way, the inventory is continuing under Trump — in fact, it’s improving, thanks to innovative uses of new technology. Government scientists continue to do lots of climate science, too, even if the administration doesn’t want to talk about it.
Of course, every president likes some science more and other science less. President Obama clearly was very interested in climate science, because he was interested in tackling climate change. He was less interested in space, cancelling a troubled program to return humans to the moon without putting in place a comparably visionary program, and allowing us to become dependent on other countries to shuttle our astronauts. Yet no one accused Obama of a war on space science. As a less visible example, the Obama Department of Energy tried to quietly kill a research program on the health impacts of radiation, despite protests from some scientists that we still don’t understand whether or not low levels of radiation from nuclear power plants, medical equipment, and other sources are harmful.
And, as I have written, the Obama administration was often oddly averse to talking about the science it was doing, throwing up barriers to communication between its scientists and the media. (The Trump administration has generally kept these barriers in place and added new ones.)
But since Obama invited students to present at White House science fairs, addressed scientific society meetings, and staffed a robust Office of Science and Technology Policy, he mostly got a pass for the times his administration defunded science or suppressed scientific information access, and retained his sterling reputation as a science champion. The main difference today is that the man in the White House doesn’t even pretend to care what scientists are learning.
Even when an opportunity presents itself, such as the December signing of the National Quantum Initiative Act, he does not seem to have much to say on the subject — a rarity for Trump. And scientists clearly don’t like the cold shoulder they’re getting from this administration after the warmth they grew used to from the previous one. Hence, rhetoric suggesting that science is under “relentless assault” arises from groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists.
There’s no question that the Trump administration often ignores or downplays science when weighing policy decisions that scientists could clearly contribute to. But that is very different from assaulting or fighting a war against science. Remember how the coal industry and right-wing politicians accused the Obama administration of carrying out a “war on coal” as it tried to reduce air and water pollution and emissions from the electricity sector? Science advocates are now doing something similar.
Fine: It’s an advocate’s job to advocate. But journalists should not. It is not the media’s role to take sides in a political fight, or to decide that certain science, such as environmental or public health science, gets to represent all science. It is the media’s job to report what is happening, as comprehensively as possible, so that readers can make the best decisions possible. The science media have done part of this job well. They’ve reported exhaustively on the Trump administration’s efforts to cut climate science programs, disband science advisory panels at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior, and to suppress scientists’ findings that certain chemicals such as chlorpyrifos and PFAS harm health. Science journalists’ stories helped get Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke — two ethically compromised agency heads — ousted. Kudos for that.
But we have done a less stellar job of covering the science agencies that Trump has not directly interfered with, and of painting a complete picture that can help Americans understand what their $86.5-billion-a-year investment in science is getting them. As in so many areas, we have let Donald Trump drive the agenda.
I implore my fellow science journalists to avoid getting dragged into political fights against the present administration. Doing so just plays into Trump’s narrative that the media are aligned against him. It makes it even harder to reach those who we most need to reach — people who have fallen under the sway of false narratives and conspiracy theories on climate change, vaccines, and other issues. And it makes all our readers less informed and less able to participate effectively in our democracy.
Gabriel Popkin writes about science and the environment from Mount Rainier, Maryland, just outside the nation’s capital. His work has appeared in a variety of general-interest publications, including The New York Times, Nature, Science, The Washington Post, Scientific American, and National Geographic.