July was an exhausting month for anyone paying attention to the current presidential election. Like many other Americans, I lived the weeks surrounding the Republican and Democratic National Conventions as a news addict trapped in a cycle of abuse — cramming nearly every spare weekday hour with analysis, op-eds, and internet commentary, crashing under a wave of hopelessness by Friday, and finally tuning out the world for the weekend to binge-watch fifteen episodes of HBO’s Veep as a sort of politics nicotine patch. Come Monday, the pattern would start anew. In my mind I was fulfilling a civic duty to stay informed, but the entire experience was pretty harrowing.
It didn’t take long for my politics habit to start impacting my day job. I zoned out while counting cells to listen to Terry Gross’s interview with the New York Time’s Amy Chozick about Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. I pretended to be reading protein expression data from Nature when I was actually reading polling data from FiveThirtyEight. Most notably, there was a distinct shift in mental priorities. After spending half a decade in graduate school studying only science, this suddenly-consuming focus on the executive branch of the United States government felt like an unpleasant fugue state. Most people who are in research at any stage are there in part because of a belief that the world can be improved by the accumulation of objective truths, or at least our best approximation of truths based on scientific evidence. In that regard, politics, —which is in some ways the exact opposite of “objective”—would appear to have no seat at the science table. We have yet to figure out a way to quantify patriotism.
In reality, the present and future of science are inextricably tied to government, both in terms of funding resources and research policy. The NIH invests over 30 billion dollars in medical research each year, financing roughly 300,000 researchers in more than 2,500 institutions throughout the nation. The recently-approved budget for fiscal year 2017 would increase this amount by $825 million, a welcome change after a decade of funding that saw budget cuts in twelve of the past fourteen years. It’s no secret that money for research project grants has been historically tight, especially following extensive sequestration of funds mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011. The only way for the United States to remain a leader in science is if Americans elect officials that continue to prioritize spending in research.
For examples of how the executive branch can impact academics and science, one only needs to look back on the last years of the Obama administration. Notable accomplishments included Obama’s $300 million Precision Medicine Initiative, the White House Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies brain-mapping project, and Vice President Joe Biden’s $1 billion Cancer Moonshot Project. Obviously, not all government-sanctioned science progress can be attributed entirely to the White House—the primary architects of the NIH’s budget increases have been Republicans, most notably Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Representative Tom Cole (R-OK) of the health spending subcommittee. However, the role of the President cannot be understated. On top of his or her duties as policy and decision making commander-in-chief, the president serves a symbolic duty as the personification of our country, a walking and talking avatar for our values and ideas. Obama, in that sense, has been a positive force for science since he pledged in his inaugural address to “restore science in its rightful place.” It’s critical for our next president, regardless of which party he or she may come from, to also be an ally of science.
That brings us to this current electoral race.
With only weeks to go before election day, Hillary Clinton has delineated a clear and fact-driven platform on how she envisions the role of science in America’s future, while Donald Trump has remained largely a black box. In an interview with Scientific American, Baylor College of Medicine’s Dr. Peter J. Hotez described Trump’s science policy as “conspicuous by its absence.” Others, such as former Republican Environmental Protection Agency administrators William D. Ruckelshaus and William K. Reilly, have gone so far as to decry Trump’s “profound ignorance of science and of the public health issues embodied in our environmental laws.” For example, Clinton’s website lists positions on nearly fourty issues, including stances on technology and innovation, Alzheimer’s disease, autism, research for HIV/AIDS, reduction of opioid addiction, and environmental conservation. Trump’s website, on the other hand, has only seven issues, headlined by plans for his Mexican border wall, with no hint of a scientific platform.
A brief look into Clinton’s professional history will reveal a candidate that has been deeply interested in medical science for her entire career. Major milestones range from Clinton’s efforts to raise funds for breast cancer research as First Lady, to her commitments as both a Senator and presidential candidate to continue support for embryonic stem cell research. Her large panel of health policy and science advisors includes Harold Varmus of Weill Cornell, former director of the NIH, and former President and CEO of MSKCC. Meanwhile, science appears to be an afterthought for the Trump campaign. One of his few on-record statements on medical science occurred on conservative commentator Michael Savage’s radio show, where Trump was vaguely critical of government-sponsored research, saying, “I hear so much about the NIH, and it’s terrible.”
However, indifference is far from Trump’s biggest problem. As demonstrated by his 2011 tenure as a mouthpiece for the spurious “birther” movement, Trump has shown a dangerous propensity to embrace pseudoscience and evidence denial. For one, he has repeatedly regurgitated the long disproven link between vaccines and autism, most recently at a CNN Republican primary debate from last fall. The only clinical research to ever make that connection derived from a single 1998 study published in The Lancet, which has since been debunked, retracted, and universally dismissed by the medical community. Yet that hasn’t stopped Trump from posting tweets like, “I am being proven right about massive vaccinations—the doctors lied. Save our children & their future,” from September 2014. To be fair, numerous politicians including Obama and Hillary Clinton expressed uncertainty about the issue back in 2008, but most have come around since then. In 2015, Clinton unambiguously tweeted, “The science is clear: The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork. Let’s protect all our kids.”
And then there’s the matter of global warming. In 2016, the reality of climate change is a foregone conclusion to 97% of climate scientists and a growing majority of US citizens in both red and blue states. In fact, back in 2008 the GOP and Democratic presidential nominees had relatively closely aligned policies on this issue. Both Obama and McCain supported the reduction of greenhouse emissions, the development of alternative energy sources, and a cap-and-trade scheme based on a European model. In 2012, climate change was rarely discussed, with greater focus instead placed on oil and gas production. This year, all Democratic candidates and the majority of Republican candidates acknowledged man-made climate change, with party-line splits occurring primarily around policy and regulations. One could presume that a bipartisan consensus had coalesced in the intervening years around mounting scientific evidence. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
In a March interview with The Washington Post, Trump was quoted as saying he is “not a great believer in man-made climate change,” consistent with his well-documented history of climate change denial. A visit to his Twitter history shows over 50 tweets Trump has posted over the past three years mocking man-made climate change as a conspiracy and a hoax (several of which were based on anecdotal experiences of personally-felt chilliness on traditionally warm days). These include statements such as “Ice storm rolls from Texas to Tennessee – I’m in Los Angeles and it’s freezing. Global warming is a total, and very expensive, hoax!” from 2013.
The Clinton campaign, on the other hand, has made tackling climate change a central electoral priority. In her Democratic National Convention nomination acceptance speech, Hillary Clinton delivered one of her more striking applause lines with four simple words: “I believe in science.” She followed up with “I believe that climate change is real and that we can save our planet while creating millions of good-paying clean energy jobs.” As a major policy point, Clinton has pledged to maintain America’s commitment to the International Paris Climate Change Agreement, whereas Donald Trump has promised to “cancel” it outright.
Of course, I have no delusions that the leader of the United States must be a PhD with total fluency in academic literature. In fact, I don’t even need the president to be correct on every scientific issue. Scientists themselves are conditioned to be wrong at times, to expect experiments to fail, to have hypotheses disproven. The key quality of both a good scientist and a good political leader is the ability to objectively assess the evidence at hand and advance accordingly, not necessarily to have all the answers. Herein lies the most unsettling aspect of a potential Trump presidency. Hillary Clinton, although a thoroughly flawed candidate in her own right, has demonstrated the ability to evolve her positions based on new information, even admitting she was wrong on several issues ranging from same-sex marriage to the war in Iraq. Trump is buried in cement on the opposite end of the spectrum, refusing to apologize for missteps even in the face of conflicting evidence or near universal criticism (see: anti-Semitic retweet, Gold-star family, Judge Curiel, Ted Cruz’s father, etc.).
This election year, Americans who value science must be wary of a candidate who treats fact like opinion and science like a partisan special interest group. This year, politics may not be scientific, but science is absolutely political.