Guest Column: Science: fertile ground for politics

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In the wake of Donald Trump’s November victory, a group of the world’s leading scientists endorsed an unprecedented open letter. In it, they implored the incoming Congress and administration to “strengthen the role that science plays in policymaking” and allow scientists to “develop and share their findings free from censorship or manipulation based on politics or ideology.”

Scientific publications also expressed concern, with titles such as “What Now for Science?” and “What scientists should focus on — and fear — under Trump.”  This alarm is well-founded — many of the cadre of advisers and nominees ready to sweep the White House in January are decidedly anti-science.

Vice President-elect Mike Pence has previously written that smoking doesn’t kill.  Tom Price, Trump’s nominee for secretary of Health and Human Services, belongs to a conspiratorial group known as the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons.  Among other things, the association claims that immigrants are disease vectors and that shaken baby syndrome is used as diagnostic cover for vaccine-related deaths.  Reince Priebus, future White House chief of staff, and fresh EPA pick Scott Pruitt both steadfastly deny any link between greenhouse-gas emissions and climate change. Steven Bannon, Trump’s senior counselor, published a particularly nauseating piece claiming that women desert scientific careers because “they can’t cut it in highly competitive environments.”  I beg to differ.

But Trump’s own contempt for the federal offices responsible for promoting scientific progress is perhaps most shocking. When asked by conservative radio host Michael Savage if Savage might commandeer the National Institutes of Health, Trump replied: “You know you would get common sense if that were the case, that I can tell you. Because I hear so much about the NIH, and it’s terrible.”  He has repeatedly championed irresponsible, unfounded anti-vaccine claims, rejected by agencies including the CDC and NIH. On the EPA’s endorsement of compact fluorescent light bulbs, Trump tweeted: “Remember, new ‘environmentally friendly’ light bulbs can cause cancer. Be careful — the idiots who came up with this stuff don’t care.” For a fun twist on this rhetoric, see trumpvsscience.com

Despite these slights, there is no issue as likely to unite our divided body politic as science. Republican Newt Gingrich published a 2015 New York Times Op-Ed in which he backed joint efforts to double the NIH budget. Gingrich wrote that “health is both a moral and financial issue.” With the likely passage of the 21st Century Cures Act this week, Congress will add to its meager tally of bipartisan successes. The act underwrites signature Obama research agendas, including the BRAIN, Precision Medicine and Cancer Moonshot Initiatives.  Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the act might be “the most significant piece of legislation we pass in the whole Congress.”

Science has the potential to benefit all Americans and bridge deep political divides.  But to reap these rewards, we must demand that our representatives promote vital scientific progress.  Lobby congressional leaders to pass a full budget, including strong funding for the NIH’s fiscal 2017 budget ($34.5 billion is the figure many experts recommend). Petition them for stable federal appropriations that support ongoing science and foster research development.  Ask them to join the NIH caucus. And demand that they pressure the president-elect to select officials and scientific advisers qualified to make informed, evidence-based recommendations. 

By lobbying Iowa’s most prominent congressional voices — Sens. Chuck Grassley (319-363-6832) and Joni Ernst (319-365-4504) — we can make sure that our concerns land on influential ears within the Republican tent. We deserve a government that believes in science. Call and insist that your voice is heard.

— by Banu Gumusoglu

Banu Gumusoglu is a Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at the University of Iowa.

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