A Rocky Relationship
Ever since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, the United States government’s relationship with science has been strained. Over the course of the past year, his administration has called for significant cuts to scientific research budgets, left vacant dozens of top science-based government positions, and even removed mentions of “science” from government websites.
In response to the Trump administration’s seemingly anti-science stance, an estimated one million scientists and their supporters convened in Washington, D.C. and 600 other cities across the globe on April 20, 2017, for the March for Science, a day dedicated to defending science’s place in politics.
Geologist Jess Phoenix was one of the scientists to speak at the Los Angeles March for Science rally, but her ambitions to influence political policy extend far beyond a single speech on a single day. In November, she hopes to be elected to represent the people of the 25th Congressional District in California.
Phoenix recently spoke with Futurism about why we need more scientists in politics, how Trump’s science policies could impact the U.S., and what else Americans can do to repair the nation’s relationship with science.
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Futurism: You say there is a “war on science”? Can you explain what this war is and who is behind it?
Jess Phoenix: The war on science is one of the most troubling developments of the 21st century. It’s part of a movement pushed by Trump and many of his associates, such as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Senator James Inhofe, and Representative Steve Knight, that aims to discredit scientists, the scientific method, and the work of scientists around the world and across fields of research.
Science drives the current economy and the American way of life, and these attacks on science itself mean the foundation of our country is jeopardized. Along with cutting funding for scientific research on climate change, diseases, technology, and other areas, Trump and his cronies are denying basic scientific facts and trying to sell the American people a steady diet of lies.
Without elected officials who acknowledge both the validity and importance of science in every aspect of our lives, the United States is heading for disaster of epic proportions.
F: Why would scientists be better elected officials than those currently in power?
JP: Scientists would be wonderful legislators for a number of reasons.
All scientists are, by definition, trained in the scientific method. That’s the process of using data gained through observations to remove uncertainties around a hypothesis in an effort to ascertain the truth. In other words, we use facts to understand our world.
In addition, I’m a field scientist. My work is done in the most extreme, dangerous conditions on the planet: active volcanoes, remote mountains, and scorching deserts. I lead expeditions of people who’ve never even camped before. It’s my job to keep them safe and do good science.
Creative problem solving is the key to field research. I’ve fixed a blown tire sidewall with bubblegum, a ballpoint pen, and duct tape. Other scientists deal with similar problems every single day.
We need scientists to help lead the way as we tackle the challenges of the 21st century.
As a group, scientists are adaptable, creative, and logical. We are trained to look at all available facts to work toward eliminating uncertainties. It’s our job, and it’s the job of a field scientist to find information that will save lives. That seems like a perfect skill set for Congress to me!
Trump and his cronies have proposed harsh cuts to critical scientific programs, including the earthquake early warning system, the tsunami warning system, the hurricane warning system, and NASA’s climate research programs.
The amount of money they’ll make available to organizations like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) is not enough to fund critical research that will help us cure diseases or solve big problems, such as climate change. We need scientists to help lead the way as we tackle the challenges of the 21st century.
F: What is 314 Action and how did you get involved with the group?
JP: 314 Action is a nonprofit 501(c)4 that is dedicated to encouraging scientists to run for office. I approached them for support when I decided to run for Congress, and they provided assistance in the early stages of my campaign.
F: Why might scientists be reluctant to run for government office? What unique challenges do they face while campaigning and serving?
JP: Scientists have been afraid to speak out politically since Robert Oppenheimer, one of the physicists who spoke out against nuclear proliferation during the era of McCarthyism, was persecuted by government officials. In order to protect their research funding, many scientists learned to keep quiet about anything that could be viewed as political.
With the current administration’s war on science, however, more scientists than ever are engaging politically.
The biggest obstacle we face as scientists running for office is raising money. Most scientists do not have a network of wealthy potential campaign donors, which is how lawyers and businesspeople are able to raise the vast amounts of money needed to campaign successfully under our current system.
Electing leaders who will push to overturn Citizens United and pass campaign finance reform will help more people from all professional backgrounds, including scientists, run for office.
F: Beyond electing more scientists to government offices, what can be done to repair society’s relationship with science?
JP: It is essential that we continue to educate our children about good, sound science. That means we need an educational system that supports and encourages scientific inquiry and discovery and doesn’t shy away from talking about important topics, such as evolution and sexual education.
An educated generation is a generation that can accomplish great things, and our first duty must be to protect our children’s education, since they are so impressionable. The very fate of our country depends on our ability to embrace the contributions that science makes to society and our planet.