Most, if not all, scientists conduct research for the sake of the common good. Their research typically lacks a political agenda and seeks only to elucidate mechanisms of disease, develop new methodologies, or simply investigate the unknown. Properly shielding scientific discovery from the jungle of the political sphere will benefit everyone, regardless of political affiliation.
In 2009, President Barrack Obama issued a memorandum to the heads of departments and agencies in the executive branch. This memo required federal agencies to develop rules and procedures to ensure scientific integrity. This should go without saying, but, for any person to do his or her job to the best of his or her ability, some protections must be in place. Obama’s 2009 memo was an important step in that direction, because it underscored that the nation, and the world for the matter, relies on the unbiased and unfiltered knowledge that results when researchers conduct investigations without anxiety of persecution if their findings do not align with the opinions of the powers that be.
Federal agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, which support thousands of U.S. students, faculty members, postdoctoral researchers and administrative personnel, in response to Obama’s memo released policy documents addressing the president’s push to protect the integrity of the science they conduct.
Obama’s tenure, however, has come to an end, and there is a new sheriff in town.
President-elect Donald Trump is slated to be sworn in to office Jan. 20, and scientists around the world are, legitimately or not, very worried. Trump has not said much, in terms of substance, about biomedical research, but he has lodged attacks on climate change, linked vaccines to autism and tweeted about the Ebola outbreak and the health effects of fracking.
Also, Trump’s nominations, like those of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy, which Perry once said he wanted to dismantle, and U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney to run the Office of Management and Budget, who famously questioned if “we really need government-funded research at all,” are causes for concern.
Additionally, Trump’s probe into the Department of Energy’s climate change programs, which the agency refused to comply with, may telegraph his administration’s intention to undermine or at least scale back those efforts.
These types of anti-science actions, however, are not new for the Republican Party. In 2016, Republicans in the U.S. House began its own blow to scientific integrity by pushing to subpoena fetal tissue researchers. Political movements such as this and that of the president-elect unjustly place scientist in an environment that stymies research discoveries and may deter future investigations that could lead to the next leap in scientific research.
The president-elect, a self-purported builder, should be able to recognize that the actions of his party and himself are, in fact, counterproductive. If Trump wants to push the country forward, he should double-down on the effort to protect scientific integrity by his predecessor. The job of the president is to lead the country forward, not backwards, and promoting an environment where research can thrive will have lasting effects, not only science but on public health and the U.S. economy.