After a year of President Trump, scientists in the United States are doing their best in difficult circumstances, and Nature applauds them for it. It’s increasingly clear that Trump has been just as bad for many aspects of science as we and others feared. Most crucially, the role of science and scientific advice in public life has been repeatedly undermined.
Writing after his election victory in November 2016, this journal tried to look on the bright side and suggested that Trump could yet “leave behind his damaging and unpopular attitudes and embrace reality, rationality and evidence” (Nature http://doi.org/bs57; 2016).
How wrong we were to be optimistic. After 12 months in office, Trump’s impact on science can be neatly divided into two categories: bad things that people expected, and bad things that they didn’t. The long list of items in the first category includes the US withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, regulatory rollback across government (environmental agencies in particular) and the now record-breaking failure to appoint a science adviser. His administration has cut off funds to organizations abroad that promote public health but mention abortion, weakened restrictions under the Toxic Substances Control Act and censored the use by government agencies of phrases such as “evidence-based” and “climate change”. Advisory groups, including one on HIV/Aids, have been disbanded, and scientists with Environmental Protection Agency grants have been banned from serving on the agency’s advisory boards.
Turning to the second category, Trump’s campaign rhetoric promised a travel ban on Muslims, but the full, chilling and chaotic details turned out to be much worse, and more divisive and disruptive, than even avowed opponents might have dared to suggest. Scientific organizations queued up to complain about the likely loss of talent.
There are also some bad things that critics expected Trump to do, but that have yet to come to pass. Budgets at key science and health agencies remain largely unmolested (although this is largely thanks to resistance in Congress to pledged cuts); bans on research using fetal tissue and embryonic stem cells have not emerged; and Obama-era programmes including the Precision Medicine Initiative remain in place for now.
One good thing has happened: Trump has triggered a surge of political activity by scientists motivated to oppose him. (And, of course, nations elsewhere, from China to France, are already stepping in to offer opportunities as US leadership slips.) Those who cherish the values of science should keep fighting. Scientists and politicians must continue to challenge the president’s actions and seek to hold him to account.