April 17, 2017

Cornell Professors to Participate in March for Science

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Some of the country’s smartest minds are coming together, but this time for much more than a science conference.

On April 22, some Cornell professors and students will be joining thousands of their counterparts at the March for Science in Washington D.C. The march is intended to demonstrate support for scientific research and evidence based policy-making, something that many scientists believe is clearly lacking in the current administration.

President Trump’s proposed 2017 budget laid out the administration’s priorities and science is not one of them. The plan included a 31 percent budget cut for the Environmental Protection Agency, a 18 percent cut for the National Institutes of Health and a small decrease in funding for NASA. These dramatic cuts could negatively affect human and environmental health as well as ongoing scientific research.

Prof. Rebecca Nelson, plant pathology, plans to attend the march to express her discontent with the budget cuts due to the repercussions it would have for scientific research in the future.

“To address the many challenges faced nationally and globally, the research process needs sustained support,” Nelson said. “The situation could become serious if the President’s proposed cuts are enacted. Without a vibrant research enterprise, the United States will become a country that depends on others for innovation.”

For some, like Prof. William Brown, biology, the march is an opportunity for scientists to remind the current administration of the importance of the use of scientific methodologies and findings in policy-making.

“My impression is that the current administration’s attitude toward science and by that I mean President Trump, his appointees and many members of Congress, is that scientific facts that run counter to their personal beliefs are to be ignored and if possible, suppressed,” Brown said. “Ignoring scientific facts, theories and controversies is extraordinarily dangerous. Moreover, the current administration appears quite willing to censure scientists who hold views counter to their belief system.”

However, many scientists, like Brown, also believe that the current administration’s policies may have a detrimental effect on science in general in addition to ignoring science when making policies.

“I think it is necessary to join the march so that scientists and supporters can have their voices heard,” Brown said. “The march symbolizes a response to the rejection of scientific principles exhibited by large groups in this country.”

Scientists are concerned about policies that go beyond simple budget cuts. Prof. Christine Leuenberger, science and technology studies, expressed her concern about how other government policies such as the proposed travel restrictions may negatively impact scientific research and advancement.

“President Trump’s proposed travel ban as well as the rising anti-immigrant rhetoric increasingly keeps international scientists from wanting to collaborate with U.S. scientists and some have called for boycotting U.S. conferences,” Leuenberger explained. “This will be detrimental to U.S. interest — we need international scientists. For instance, only four percent of the world’s engineering degrees are earned in the U.S., as opposed to 56 percent in Asia and 17 percent in Europe. International STEM students that graduate from U.S. universities contribute to a ‘brain-gain;’ if we lose such talented graduates this will contribute to a ‘brain-drain.’”

Another key concern is the intended reversal of policies, including the Clean Power Plan, that are meant to keep our contribution to climate change in check. Indeed, scientists at the march will also be demonstrating to push for a greater role for climate experts in policy-making. This is a move supported by a majority of the general public, with a 2015 Pew Research Center study finding that 67 percent of Americans support giving climate scientists a greater role in climate policy decisions.

“I hope that the many decent people in government recognize the role of science in propelling progress. Among other things, we need to reinvent much about the way we function in order to create an economy with lower carbon emissions. If we fail to do that, we will be destroying the planet for future generations,” Nelson said.

For many, the march stands for more than a simple demonstration against the current administration’s policies. Instead, scientists hope that politicians and the public at large will take note of the importance of scientific findings and its methodologies in solving many of the issues we face today.

“I hope the new administration will appreciate not only the value of evidence-based science in government affairs, but also the fact that the scientific enterprise, which is based on the global exchange of people and ideas, is within America’s national interest and is fundamental to global stability and prosperity. After all poverty, climate change and health pandemics are transnational problems and they can only be addressed with transnational solutions that are based on sound, evidence-based and transparent science,” Leuenberger said.