Science and Government

Okay… It’s a little bit of a deviation from the normal type of post that I do, but I couldn’t remain silent.

Recently, my Facebook and Twitter feeds blew up with people objecting to political involvement in science. I was in the dark as to what was really going on. I had posted on my Facebook page the following message:

My Facebook and Twitter feeds are currently blowing up about something the Trump has done with regards to #science, and I have no idea what has happened. The feeds are suggesting tighter regulations for scientific research, cutting funding to particular areas, but I can’t seem to find details or facts — just a lot of hot-headed remarks about science being real. Can someone help a girl out and point me to the real facts of the latest frenzy?

It took a significant amount of research of my own, but I was able to work out what were the root causes for concern. At the end of January (when I first wrote this post), Trump had yet to appoint key science-related positions and there were rumors that he was looking at appointing non-scientists (people that have publicly shot down science as a hoax) into some of these roles. The most noted was Trump’s nomination of former Texas governor Rick Perry as the head of the Department of Energy, a post that has been held by respected physicists.

There were gag orders in place within several US governmental scientific departments, with people wondering if these were just orders for the transition or whether they would become permanent policy, muzzling scientist who just happen to work for the US government.

The Environmental Protection Agency was one such agency under gag order, with scientific findings requiring political review before they are released to the public.

The heads of many scientific organisations were being stonewalled, unable to get any answers out of the current administration as to what was happening. I will grant Trump has been in office for less than a month, but surely in this technological era, one would think that any government would want its scientists on its side.

I must admit that I too am now very scared. This apparent lack of respect for science has me questioning exactly what the world as a whole is about to face.

Here’s the deal: Scientific funding bodies around the world take their cue from the USA. If a particular field of research is banned in the USA, then it will likely be banned elsewhere too. Any regulations that are put in place for the oversight of scientific research in the USA are often mirrored in other countries. If the governance of scientific research within the USA becomes questionable at best, the reputation of American scientists will also come under question.

There has always been a risk to scientists for consistency within jobs. Many scientists rely heavily on government funding, but to be put into a situation where you will be forced to be silenced about your findings just because the politicians don’t like what your research might suggest? This is where science breaks down. Without the ability to confer with noted colleagues from around the world, one can’t validate the research. As a result, policy makers are handed massaged, and possibly inaccurate, data to act on. And all of this is because of the pressure to produce the right result or your funding could be cut and you’re out of a job.

Without the scrutiny that peer-review provides, policy makers will be acting on an incomplete picture.

Don’t get me wrong: I strongly believe that some government oversight is needed for good science. Policies set by the NIH and FDA determine exactly what levels of scrutiny are required for pharmaceuticals and genetic research. (I’m not adverse to experimental drugs, but I want to know exactly what sort of side-effects I can expect before taking it. My own children have had experimental vaccines, but those vaccines went through a mountain of testing before they were allowed to be used on children.)

The regulations on animal testing is incredibly strict. All facilities must have trained vets on staff and only certain breeds of mice are allowed to be used, and only for certain fields of research. Obtaining ethical approval is not as easy as people think: the paperwork is a nightmare and the reporting process is tightly regulated. In addition, the ethics committee has the right to demand all of your research notes at any time.

These oversights are vital to ensure that proper care it taken at all times.

You can’t do research for the sake of research. There MUST be valid reasons.

Scientists across all fields are used to this concept and we accept it, but we are also reliant on the communication channels with colleagues. Good science is peer-reviewed.

I don’t know exactly where science will sit in the new US government, but I do hope that someone manages to press the importance of science on Trump. I guess only time can tell.


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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2017

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