We don’t know if the incoming Trump administration will make science, medicine, and healthcare a priority. So far, it doesn’t look good. The new President’s cabinet picks include a man who has denied climate change exists and a man who led a company that concealed their knowledge about the science of climate change. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who believes the false theory that vaccines cause autism, is reportedly set to lead a new commission on vaccine safety. Motions to repeal the Affordable Care Act (known as Obamacare) and replace it with a new healthcare plan are already underway. The specifics of this new plan are currently unknown. A lot is unknown, really.
We talked to a climate scientist, a Ph.D. candidate and the leader of a reproductive health rights organization about how science and health funding could change under this new administration, and how people can fight back.
Kim Cobb is one of more than 800 scientists who signed a letter following the election that urged Trump to take actions to address climate change in the U.S. She also participated in the “Stand Up For Science” rally last month in San Francisco, where thousands of scientists had gathered for the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union. A professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Cobb studies the history of El Niño and whether the climate cycle is changing today in response to greenhouse gases.
Paste: Besides protests and talking about the importance of climate change science on social media, is there any other way you’re taking action?
Kim Cobb: Obviously, for people like me, who have been doing this for a long time, more of the same is not going to cut it for me. I am talking with colleagues right now about what other structures and mechanisms we need to invent in this surprise world that we find ourselves in, to be more effective, whether that’s through backdoor channels or through protests or through coalitions.
Paste: Are you troubled by any of Trump’s cabinet picks? Why?
KC: I definitely was hoping for a more balanced set of leaders in respect to climate change in particular. The deck seems heavily stacked towards the climate denial side of the spectrum right now. It should be worrying to every American that Scott Pruitt [Trump’s pick to lead the EPA] has repeatedly gone on record saying that climate change is a hoax and that scientists don’t agree. This is someone who not only holds climate change science in a dim view, but many other aspects of environments preservation and conservation and protection that we all rely on to keep our environment clean, safe and beautiful.
Paste: Is your research affected by government funding?
KC: My lab is 100 percent federally funded. So yes, my lab and all my students would be affected if climate change science is somehow explicitly targeted for cuts, which is a possibility right now. It really goes beyond our own skin and the skin of the young people, knowing that young people will bear the brunt of the pain that is caused by any targeted cuts to climate change science. It really is about the choices that we make as a nation in the next five years or 10 years. We’re starting down a—some would say—modest but clear path with the policies from the Obama administration and agreements in Paris. While some of that, they say, cannot be undone, I think those of us who have been studying this for a lifetime recognize that time is precious and these delays are going to be costly.
Devon Collins is part of the team behind Science Soapbox, a website that explores how scientific research is funded in the U.S. Collins, Avital Percher and Maryam Zaringhalam also interview leaders in the science community on a variety of topics for their corresponding podcast—their latest episode discussed science activism in the wake of the November election. Collins is a Ph.D. candidate at the Rockefeller University, where he studies neuroendocrinology, neurobiology and behavior.
Paste: Many scientists are engaging in rallies and protests. Is this kind of action helpful?
Devon Collins: It’s really important for scientists to participate in protests and advocacy. Seeing scientists from multiple fields is powerful not only for the public but for people in other STEM fields. We’re citizens and we have civic responsibilities that overlap with our goals as scientists. We’re motivated to do good things for people, and speaking out on behalf of scientists is one of those things that we can do. People also trust us. We’re still a very trusted group of professionals and we can use that to our advantage.
Paste: What are the dangers if this new administration doesn’t focus on science?
DC: Science creates jobs. Scientific discovery drives economic engines. Not focusing on science robs us of very valuable opportunities to diversify our economy and make the country stronger. We have major political leaders who are parading absolute nonsense about science and how it’s done. It’s dangerous and irresponsible for Trump to say, for example, that vaccines cause autism. If we have such a strong demagogue with such charisma driving people so emotionally to be against good and right science, that provides a lot of fertile ground for anti-scientific and anti-intellectual sentiments to grow.
Paste: What should scientists or science advocates do if they care about protecting science funding under this administration?
DC: Learn how to take advantage of opportunities for coordinated political action, like connecting with other scientists at meetings, symposia and other places where lots of people who are passionate about the same interests are all in the same space at the same time.
Engage with policy makers and the public in ways that integrate not only evidence, but also the values and emotions that come along with big issues involving science. It’d be great if the rightness or correctness of data were all that was involved in shaping regulations or political platforms, but the facts are only one part of what goes into shaping opinions and making policies. Not much can get done if science advocates are only discussing the facts while others are discussing values or beliefs.
Heather Boonstra is the director of public policy at the Guttmacher Institute, which advocates for sexual and reproductive health rights in the U.S. and around the world. The organization compiles data and releases reports on policy concerning topics such as abortion, contraception and pregnancy.
Paste: Should people who care about women’s healthcare, especially contraceptive coverage, be worried about the new administration?
Heather Boonstra: Yes. We are watching closely. We’re not exactly sure what form the attacks will take. So far, this is not an administration that has shown strength in further empowering women and their decisions. We feel like the contraceptive coverage guarantee or other provisions along those lines, such as family planning under Medicaid, are very vulnerable at this point.
Paste: So what can people do?
HB: It’s important that representatives hear from their constituents directly. The stories are very important of the individual lives and how they are impacted by having insurance coverage, period, let alone these other contraceptive benefits. There were so many gains made under the Obama administration by way of healthcare. It’s extraordinary. The way that has benefited women and their families in particular is notable. The concern now is that those gains will be lost.
Paste: What are organizations like yours doing to make sure that correct information about healthcare is available to the public?
HB: We just released a short piece on contraceptive coverage that just kind of walks through the bullet points and arguments and also presents the evidence. We’re tying to get out, very quickly, the information that people need to make the best decisions in this area. We have an article that’s coming out very soon about abortion in the United States.
We’re also thinking about how to correct misstatements or watch the misinformation that is out there on these hot topics, so if someone says, “the pill is really abortion,” we can come out and say, “no, it isn’t.”