A List of Everything American Scientists Will Have to Tackle in 2018
It's time to get to work.
In April, thousands of people around the world participated in the March for Science, an organized movement that was equal parts a celebration of scientific knowledge and a show of resistance against the forces that hold back that knowledge. While participants emphasized that the march was bipartisan, it was undeniably a movement galvanized by the inauguration of Donald Trump and his actions against the scientific community.
Looking into 2018, many of the things protestors chanted about are still in danger: national lands are threatened, major cuts to funding are imminent, and climate change still looms. For scientists to continue to make breakthrough discoveries, much needs to change. Here, based on what has happened in the past year, Inverse presents the challenges that lie ahead for the field, many of which scientists are already defeating:
The Trump Administration Doesn’t Support Climate Change Science
In August, Trump declared his intention to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change, although no country can technically leave the accord until 2020. The symbolic decision made the U.S. the only country that has rejected the global pact and came to represent the tip of the ever-melting iceberg that is the Trump administration’s willingness to ignore climate change.
Other threats to climate change science include:
- Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who the Trump administration picked to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt is a strong supporter of the fossil fuel industry and doesn’t believe there is a link between carbon dioxide levels and global warming.
- The increasingly skewed way that National Science Foundation funding is awarded to American scientists. The Trump administration’s hostility to climate change science is reflected was found to be reflected in the NSF’s process in an NPR analysis, which showed that the number of grants with the phrase “climate change” in its title or summary that receive NSF funding is steadily decrease. The number of grants with the phrase “extreme weather” has increased.
- Trump’s announcement in December that the United States no longer considers climate change a national security threat.
- Massive funding cuts to NASA’s earth science projects, which offer incredible insight on climate change. The administration has announced its intention to focus NASA’s work on only the moon, Mars, and private space companies.
Science Is Being Actively Censored
Since January, a combination of internal governmental pressure and public decrees have censored what scientists funded by the federal government are allowed to say. These steps have included:
- A ban on governmental agencies from issuing public, social media updates on work pertaining to climate change. When it started in January, it prompted a backlash from accounts from the National Parks system, some of which went rogue and tweeted about climate change anyway.
- Undercover investigations on Environmental Protection Agency staff by Trump employees. A New York Times investigation published in December found that the EPA hired a firm called Definers Public Affairs to investigate EPA employees who publicly criticized the Trump administration and EPA administrator Scott Pruitt. The firm submitted at least 40 Freedom of Information Acts in order to obtain the personal emails of those employees, an act that EPA employee Gary Morton told the Times was a attempt to “intimidate and bully us into silence.”
- Censorship of scientific language. In December, the Centers for Disease Control announced a list of words that could not be used in official federal budget documents and supporting materials, including: vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, transgender, fetus, evidence-based, and science-based. An unnamed former CDC official told the Times that the step wasn’t meant to ban the science associated with those words but rather help create budgets that would be approved by Republicans.
There’s a Crisis of Cash for Scientists and Their Students
While the budget hasn’t been finalized yet and cuts won’t take into effect until October, scientists are waiting for the verdict on scientific funding with bated breath. Earlier this year, Trump proposed major cuts, but the U.S. House of Representatives have mostly rejected these proposals. For example, Trump originally proposed cutting the budget for the Office of Science at the Department of Energy by 17 percent, but now it looks like it will remain the same as it was in 2017. The NSF budget will likely be cut by 1.8 percent (better than Trump’s proposed 11 percent cut) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology will have its budget cut by 4 percent, instead of the proposed 13 percent.
Climate science is, unsurprisingly, being hit hard. It’s likely that funding for climate change research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will be cut by 19 percent. The EPA doesn’t look like it will fare that well either: In November, the Senate Appropriations Committee introduced a bill that would cut $150 million in funding for the agency.
But what will really screw over scientists cash-wise in 2018 is the tax bill recently passed by Republicans in the House of Representatives. While the bill hasn’t been passed by Congress into law yet, it’s likely to, and with that will come a repeal of Section 117(d)(5), a waiver that helps graduate students receive tuition scholarships tax-free. Under the new code, these waivers would be taxed — which means that students will have to pay taxes on salaries that include scholarships. That means that students will be paying taxes as if their salaries were closer to $80,000 when in reality they’re earning $33,000. It’s expected to be a financial burden that will force many graduate students to leave academia.
National Park Lands Are In Danger
In December, Trump announced that he would massively scale back the size of Bear Ears National Monument, opening up the massive swath of protected land to mining, logging, and oil and gas drilling. The new order shrinks the park to just 15 percent of its original size of 1.35 million acres, a form of protection established by President Barack Obama in 2016. The move was vehemently opposed by biologists, archeologists, and paleontologists, some of which have already sued.
The decision to shrink the federally protected land is an early step in Trump’s overall plan to curb the Antiquities Act, a 1906 law that allows presidents to protect land containing natural resources and artifacts. Trump sees the Act as an “abusive practice” that lets the federal government “lock up millions of acres of land and water.” Twenty-five other national monuments fit Trump’s new criteria for reduction or closure, including the Grand Sequoia in California and Nevada’s Gold Butte.
American Science is In Danger of Falling Behind
The travel ban instated (and later declared unconstitutional) in January was one of the first signs to scientists working in the U.S. that the country was no longer friendly to them and their work. In December, the American brain drain became obvious when French President Emmanuel Macron announced that 13 American scientists were moving to France, offering the country their climate research expertise.
Science brain drain is also happening within the White House. There are virtually no scientists currently work on staff, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy still does not have a leader or an official mandate. This is the longest the Office has gone without a leader in its 41-year long history and means that there is no official science advisor informing the policies made by the president.