Trump's moves against science raise fears of damage to economy: Don Pittis

U.S. President Donald Trump seems to have picked a fight with scientists — like Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper before him. But modern economic progress depends on science and not short-term thinking.

Economic progress depends on science, and muzzling of U.S. government scientists won't help

Canadian scientists protested about being muzzled by the Harper government. Now U.S. scientists are beginning to plan their own protests. (CBC)

What is it about conservative governments and science?

From the days when Benjamin Franklin tinkered with electricity to a time when there is a microchip in nearly everything, it is hard to argue against the idea that much of U.S. wealth and power has been invented in a laboratory.

"We have a really rich history of using science to [create] tremendous benefits for Americans and greatly contributing to American success in technology and business," says Gretchen Goldman, research director at the U.S. Union of Concerned Scientists. 

And yet, despite those contributions, U.S. President Donald Trump seems to have gone to war with scientists — like Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper before him.

U.S. President Donald Trump is being advised by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and Apple CEO Tim Cook, but government scientists are complaining that they are being silenced. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Goldman says that, after a reprieve during the Obama presidency, her group is seeing a revival of the same problems it rallied against under President George W. Bush.

"President Trump's first week in office has been very reminiscent of a lot of our early work, which did focus on muzzling of scientists and restrictions on government information," says Goldman.

Scientists go rogue

Contradicting the scientific consensus, Trump has declared climate change a hoax and vaccines a source of disease. Like Harper, he has gagged government scientists, telling them not to reveal the results of their research to the public.

The magazine Scientific American, a mainstay of U.S. science for 170 years, published an editorial that called Trump "shockingly ignorant" on science issues, declaring that "his statements show a disregard for science that is alarming in a candidate for high office."

The Trump administration ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to remove its climate change website, though the order was rescinded the next day following a backlash. 

An order telling government scientists not to use social media spawned "rogue" Twitter accounts, including @RogueNASA and @RogueEPA, some of which now have more followers than the original government accounts. 

Now there are reports of a government witch hunt for scientists issuing the tweets, with one justice department official saying they could be prosecuted under federal anti-hacking laws.

The growing antipathy between scientists and the Trump administration has led to tentative plans for a march on Washington, similar to Canada's Stand Up for Science rallies under Harper.

Not the radical fringe

The fear of the U.S. turning against science, after being such a longtime champion of free scientific thinking, is not just coming from the radical fringe.

Those fears go to the top of such conservative scientific bodies as the Royal Society of Canada, a council of distinguished Canadian scholars that traces its tradition to the Royal Society of London founded in 1660.

"Democratic science is so important," says Royal Society president Maryse Lassonde, a world leader in studying how brain structures relate to psychology. 

Speaking from Germany, where Lassonde has been helping to plan a G20 gathering of the world's leading scientists called Science20, she says that even if science seems in conflict with immediate economic or political goals, making the truth public is essential for accurate economic and political decisions.

​"Free access to science is the best way to improve a society," says Lassonde.
A 1958 prototype for a Texas Instruments microchip is shown, just one of the U.S. scientific inventions that created untold billions in wealth for U.S. business and the country's citizens. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

One important change since the days of the original Royal Society and the workbench of Benjamin Franklin is that science has become more complex and more expensive, says Chris Smeenk, who studies the history and philosophy of science at Western University.

"So much of scientific research depends on government funding," says Smeenk, and it's the government's rightful job, as our elected representative, to decide where that money will be spent.

'Not just conservatives'

Through history, from Galileo to Einstein, scientists have found themselves in conflict with governments that felt threatened by their ideas.

"It's not just conservatives," says Smeenk, citing the example of the communist government under Stalin, where "quantum mechanics was seen as being in conflict with dialectical materialism."

In Nazi Germany, the government led a movement against "Jewish physics," initially persecuting physicist Werner Heisenberg as a "white Jew" for insisting, correctly, that the Jewish scientists had got it right.

Smeenk, who recently moved to Canada from the U.S., says it's incorrect to think that the roughly half of U.S. voters who cast their ballots for Trump are anti-science.

However, he says many core Trump supporters have been convinced by fake science that climate change is not true. There are also many in the religious right who see the teaching of evolution as a threat to their religious beliefs.

Business has also had a history of trying to discredit science it fears will increase short-term costs. There is now lots of evidence of business generating pseudo-science disinformation campaigns on such things as tobacco and cancer, the damaging effects of pesticides, and automobile safety, despite the fact that the real science is now well accepted.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper holds a permafrost ice core in 2014. He faced protests from the Canadian scientific community, which said he suppressed scientific discussion. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Biologist Scott Findlay, one of the leaders of the pro-science demonstrations in Ottawa, agrees that the issue is not the political stripe of the governments. Instead, it's about how fearful they are that their own message may be discredited.

"The more you want to control the message," he says, "the more likely you are to restrict the flow of information from other independent and credible sources."

But Findlay says democratic science is a far bigger issue than short-term politics. He says it is essential to our long-term economic health and our daily well-being.

"If you need heart surgery, you don't want to be in a post-truth operating theatre."

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About the Author

Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.