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Former US president Barack Obama and his science advisor John Holdern walking at the White House
Reuters/Joshua Roberts
Science held a high place in the Obama White House.
STEM ACTIVISM

Obama’s former science advisor says there are four things scientists should do to stay relevant under Trump

By Katherine Ellen Foley

Boston, Massachusetts, US

At the annual meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, nervous laughter peppered the panel discussion on science policy under US president Donald Trump.

The scientific community has an uncertain future under Trump. The new president has a history of denying scientific facts, and his early actions in office show he intends to craft policy around these beliefs. His immigration ban bars scientists from the country; his confirmed Environmental Protection Agency director has long opposed the agency, suing it multiple times (and there’s a bill on the House floor that would dissolve the agency altogether); and his proposed panel evaluating the safety of vaccines is expected to move forward. So far, Trump hasn’t appointed anyone to head the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

For comparison, John Holdren, a plasma physicist by training and leader of the OSTP under president Barack Obama, was named an official assistant to the president—which gave him direct access to Obama on a regular basis. “We appear to have a president now who resists facts,” Holdren said in the panel yesterday (Feb. 17). Although he wouldn’t speculate on what exactly Trump’s scientific policy might look like in practice moving forward, he did have advice for scientists who are anxious about the future of their field under the administration, paraphrased below:

  • Don’t be discouraged or intimidated; keep doing your science, because the work is important.
  • Become more broadly informed about science and policy issues.
  • Give over at least 10% of your time to public service, public policy, and activism.
  • Be strategic. Simply calling out daily inaccuracies won’t be enough; larger-scale organization is key.

Already, scientists have started embodying some of these ideas. Just after the inauguration, they organized a march in Washington, DC to stand up for facts, planned for Earth Day, April 22. The newly-formed group 314action, which will help non-politicians run for political office, has been flooded with scientists applicants. Unfortunately, though, time spent fighting to be relevant is time scientists aren’t spending on research.