Opinion guest column

Threats to science and what MIT can do

Science policy under President-elect Trump

The Climate Action Plan (CAP) released last year made the controversial decision not to divest in fossil fuel companies in favor of “engagement with industry and government.” Members of the MIT community such as Patrick Moran have openly criticized this decision because it “wrongly assesses the problem” and does nothing to change the political will among the leaders in government.

This criticism, voiced before the results of the election, is more relevant than ever now. While politicians have long misinterpreted or undervalued science, Donald Trump will be the first president to completely disregard data and blatantly devalue expert judgment. If the MIT administration wants to justify its decision to engage in its fight against climate change, then this is the opportune moment to do it.

The issues, however, are far broader than climate change. Trump’s policy proposals and his political appointments have very tangible impacts on the everyday operations at MIT and the implications of the research that we perform. Analysts predict that Trump’s tax plan, accompanied with his proposed spending increases in infrastructure and military, will increase the spending deficit by at least $4 trillion over the next decade. Maintaining this kind of spending is impossible without budget cuts in other agencies. With the largest expenditures like Social Security and Medicare protected by law, this means that discretionary funding like funding for science are the most at risk.

While it is doubtful that Trump will achieve anything near the spending levels that he proposes, the general direction that the administration intends to lead the country toward is clear: science that does not support the national agenda of economic growth will face severe cuts in federal funding. Funding cuts in many divisions of science, especially in Earth Sciences, may become crippling over the next four years. Even prior to this past election, the Republican Party has long sought to shift the focus of our satellites away from Earth and back to space. For the past three years, Congress has repeatedly underfunded NASA projects that are pivotal to our understanding of Earth’s systems and overfunded projects for space exploration by as much as eight times their requested budget. With a government fully controlled by Republicans, support for Earth Science could fall to an unprecedented low.

Scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Science say that the proposed cuts to Earth Science will be a “major setback if not devastating.” Indeed, NASA’s Earth Science division plays an important role in monitoring changes on Earth that threaten our national food and water supplies and alert us to collapsing ecosystems that would be very difficult to detect without satellite assistance. Ultimately, space exploration should be seen as a luxury.

Accompanied by the shifting of national science priorities, President-elect Trump has promised to wage an all-out war against regulation: within the first 100 days, he plans on revoking the Clean Power Plan, dismantling the EPA, and canceling the Paris Climate Agreement to name a few. Precedents to this kind of anti-science leadership can be found in Canada when it was led by Stephen Harper. Harper’s policies to deregulate the market and to silence researchers from speaking about their expertise led the Washington-based Center for Global Development to rank Canada as the worst among 27 developed nations in terms of environmental protection. Under Trump’s administration, we are likely to move on a similar path.

The appointment of climate-change skeptic Myron Ebell to the head of the EPA and Trump’s call to defund the Earth Science department inside of NASA are more than just political maneuvers. They are direct attacks on the dissemination of scientific knowledge — a core value that MIT has sworn to defend as part of its mission to the world.

By cutting funding to the regulatory agencies that monitor the health of our ecosystems and our planet, Trump is attempting to usher in a new era of politics that is unobstructed by data or expertise. Without guidance, regulatory decisions that endanger our ecosystems as well as our planet will be made based on power rather than on prudence. We cannot stand by this kind of recklessness. The consequences to our air, land, and water will reverberate far into the future.

While universities should strive to be non-partisan, these are exceptional circumstances that justify the violation of neutrality. As an institute of science and technology, we have a moral obligation to speak out and fight back when tangible threats are made against the core of our identity: scientific progress.

If the MIT administration is sincere in its attempt to use engagement with industry and government to defend against climate change and to defend our core values, I call upon the administration to leverage its ties with government and industry to take tangible action against the appointment of Myron Ebell. Our administration should furthermore strive to personally educate President-elect Trump and Mike Pence on the value of scientific diversity and on the importance of selecting a non-partisan science advisor who is thoroughly educated in both science and science policy.

Brian Tom is a member of the MIT Class of 2018.