The Personal Blog of Stephen Sekula

On being a scientist in America right now

There is a question that hangs on the lips of scientists in America right now. If science is under threat, what is the best way to act? There is no simple answer to this. Indeed, this is a deeply personal question for each scientist, one that can only be answered from within. Nonetheless, there are some things to consider when answering the question. In this post, I want to express my thoughts about the considerations, my perspectives on them, and leave the American scientist with some parting guidance about how to conduct themselves in the coming hours, days, weeks, months, and years.

Is science under threat?

I don’t know. The easy answer is “Yes.” The signs are there. Climate science and science education denialists have been given key roles during the transition into and at the highest levels of the Trump administration [1]. Trump has made statements in the past that fly in the face of all reliable scientific information about the kind of information experienced policy makers would weigh heavily in deciding how to steer a nation. Certainty, there are soldiers of anti-science lined up, muskets in hand.

But, in a real sense, no musket balls have yet been truly fired. There have been misfires. A blackout of public communications imposed on agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Park Service ended shortly after it began [2]. There was confusion when a member of the Trump administration seemed to talk about reviewing even scientific output from science agency staff and researchers, though the administration walked this back a little later and clarified that they were only referring to website postings and content [3]. If there is any one clear statement you could make about the past 14 days of this administration, it would be “Confusion is our product.” [4]

Scientists are trained to observe, form hypotheses (testable and falsifiable explanations for the underlying cause of the observation), run experiments to assess the validity of the hypotheses, and report their findings to the public. This is a cycle, to be repeated over and over in an attempt to come to a better understanding of the truth. In science, there is only the authority of nature – the story the data tell. A lack of experience is a near-guarantee that your results will be terrible, but a good scientist also knows that all the experience in the world doesn’t immunize you from mistakes (well-intentioned or otherwise).

So when we observe chaos like this, initiated by individuals who have, at best, rookie-league experience in science and science policy (not a single member of the Trump cabinet, confirmed or otherwise, is a scientist – by which I mean a person with a PhD in a scientific field who has practiced in that field in at least the last 10 years) [5] [6], the instinct of the scientist is to observe, explain, explore, and try to conclude. And, probably, to get very, very angry and want to act.

Time, however, is a crucial variable in this process. I would argue that it’s important to watch out for the short-ranged chaotic interactions that this administration clearly favors so far. They drain a lot of energy from a scientist. You need to keep your energy levels up for the real fights to come.

One needs to keep in mind that science policy and science funding are the twin targets that are most crucial to watch. So far, no real policy has been made except that executive orders canceling other executive orders have been issued. Yes, these orders cancel previous orders that represented action on climate change or environmental health [7], but so far they do not represent a statement of coherent policy. They merely represent a President keeping his promise to undo what the previous President has done, extending the tradition pursued by Republicans in general from 2009-2016 of acting to obstruct or oppose President Obama. Trump’s disdain for the Obama presidency was infused into his campaign, so it should come as no surprise that Trump’s executive actions have been consistent with that disdain.

Trump has also not yet issued a budget vision for science agencies for FY18. The Congress has also made no such action toward that end, and all accounts have that process unfolding in the coming weeks. As is the tradition, the Congress will await budget guidance from the President, via the Office of Management and Budget, and then they will work to craft their own visions of federal spending. As is common in any presidency, the President and the Congress will likely not at all agree on that spending landscape. So in terms of funding – the most sure sign of policy – we have no idea yet what the plan is.

So is there a threat? In the sense that assault and battery are two separate things, I believe there is an implied threat but no actual harm has really been done. Trump has threatened science with words and actions (tweeting, hiring people, nominating people). But even many of those people so nominated have backed away from the kinds of rhetoric – anti-science rhetoric – they were notable for in the past. So it’s impossible to know the reality of the threat. Will it come to battery? No one can really say yet, but if I were to bet I would bet harm is coming down the line – even if that harm is out of pure incompetence rather than organized malice.

It’s also important to note that while Trump uses words – lots of them, very short, and very loudly – to him words are like toilet paper: once used, you flush them down the toilet, never to be concerned with them again until the next time you need to speak. Trump’s numerical record of factual accuracy indicates he lies about 70% of the time [8] – and this record has held very constant over time. So one has to be very careful in jumping at his every word, every phrase, every vitriolic, alternative-fact-based rant.

Yeah, but what do I DO?

First, what makes you a good scientist is that you do good science. Do more of that. The worst thing we, as scientists, can do in a time of chaos is let the chaos distract us from the mission. Our mission is to increase the knowledge of the human species. In doing so, we hope to bring more happiness, prosperity, health, sustainability, and  satisfaction to our species. Let’s not lose sight of the point of science, even if this administration doesn’t at all seem to understand or really even care what science is. Science is the best way of knowing about the natural world ever developed by our species, and its practice and development is sustained by every micro-pipeting, every computer keystroke laying down code, every peek in a microscope, every moment staring with desperation and silence at a whiteboard. We must not forget that we are practitioners, and we must practice. If we drop the ball on our research, then of course science in America will fall behind. [9]

Second, you need to decide whether every propaganda fire is worth putting out. Some fires are set to distract. Some fires are set to tire you out. Some fires are set to test your abilities to put out a fire, and observe the limits of your skils. You can’t give the propagandist everything they want. Be judicious in your selection of things to which you react. And be judicious in how you actually do react.

Third, beware of the very thing that we warn students, learning about science, to be wary of. Propaganda is meant to avoid the head and go for the heart. If you feel anger, if you feel frustration, if you feel fear – remember that this is the propaganda working, by shutting down the higher functions of your brain and turning on that animal brain – that “lizard brain” – that lurks inside us all. This is the work of the propagandist, to disable the costly critical thinking centers and cause us to lose sight of the target in a fit of red rage. We all fall prey to this. I’ve done it. I’m both ashamed and not ashamed to admit it (after all, scientists are humans!). But when it happens, try to remember to tell yourself that if you’re choking on emotion then the propagandist has won. Step away. Walk back. Calm down. Take time away from the news. Collect your thoughts.

So if you’re calm, and thinking more clearly now, and you’ve decided this is the issue on which you choose to act, it might be time to take action. What do you do?

Choosing to take action

I recommend you take advantage of the facets of our Constitutional Democracy that make it great. Remember that the three branches of government are supposed to act to keep each other in check. For instance, regarding the executive ban on travelers from 7 Muslim-majority countries (and an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees), the judiciary has clearly been acting as a check on executive authority, even as the Congress (with its much slower response to events) has been glacial to do anything of substance. This is the nature of our branches of government. This is our democracy in action. You don’t need to agree with it; just be grateful that this is the country in which you live, and that power cannot (for now) act unchecked as it once did when the American Colonies were ruled from afar by a Monarchy.

Since the Congress is the body with, typically, the most lead time needed to act, and since the judiciary is best accessed by legal experts (of course, you can charter yourself a legal expert to take your fight to court – don’t be afraid, if it’s that serious!), I recommend trying to interact with Congress. They are your most direct representation, and typically there are 4 members of Congress, minimum, with whom you can interact:

  1. Your Two Senators
  2. Your House of Representatives elected official for the district where you live
  3. Your House of Representatives elected official for the district where you work

Perhaps the last two are the same person; for me, they are different Members of the House, so I have the benefit of 4 minimum people to converse with on issues of importance to me.

There might be more people who will take your call – the Senators and Representatives from the state and district where your parents reside (which might be where you grew up and still visit), for instance. That is up to you to try. I will say that the farther you are from living and working in a state or district, the less interested in your concerns will be those Members of Congress.

Which leads me to my next suggestion: form a coalition. Don’t get fancy. Just find like-minded scientists who span states and districts and do some light letter-writing or phone-calling coordination. For instance, I recently wrote a letter to my Members of Congress thanking them for meeting with colleagues of mine about 1.5 weeks ago. My letter was short and simple, and looked like this:

I am writing to express my deep thanks for welcoming three Texas physicists – <NAMES HERE> –  to your Washington D.C. office. They spoke with your local staff in DC, who engaged them in a discussion of basic research in physics and its importance to the economic well-being of the nation.

I live in <PLACE>  and am a physicist at SMU, working on an experiment called “ATLAS” located at the CERN Laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland. As you can imagine, the international nature of science and the key role the United States plays is my daily bread. I primarily teach pre-med students and graduate students in our physics PhD program; these students go on to remarkable careers in medicine, politics and policy, engineering, data science, and even academic physics. Many do so right here in the Dallas/Fort-Worth Metroplex, benfitting the local economy! Physics is not disconnected from everyday life; <PERSONAL ANECDOTE ABOUT SOMETHING IN DISTRICT HERE>.  Physics is part of Texas life.

Physics, as a science, deals with the nature of energy, matter, space, and time. This may sound esoteric and unremoved the daily life, but my field – subatomic particle physics – created the superconducting magnets at the hearts of every hospital MRI machine and the particle accelerators at the heart of every cancer beam-therapy center in the United States. Such facilities serve Americans, saving lives through transformative, non-surgical health interventions. Although my own research is into the nature of a newly discovered building block of the universe – the Higgs Boson, or “God Particle” – I am proud to work side-by-side with thousands of colleagues from Texas, the US, and the globe pushing the boundaries of technology. Such curiosity driven inquiry into nature inevitably yields economic benefits.

I am also proud of the students that SMU is able to attract to the Metroplex and the US via this research.  <PERSONAL MENTORING  ANECDOTE HERE>

Let me close this letter with my thanks to you and your staff for welcoming physicists into your office. I am proud that you represent us to Congress, and I know that the well-being of all citizens and non-citizens seeking scientific and other inquiry at my institution are in capable hands. I urge you to continue to fight for science, insuring American leadership in the world. Please let me know if I can be of service.

Note a few things:

  1. I was pretty angry about the travel ban when I wrote these letters. Notice any anger? Being thankful for something in a letter like this greases the wheels of the interaction. Save your anger for when it really, really matters. That’s a gun you don’t want to fire too often.
  2. Notice the places where I stuck in anecdotes that were quite specific to where I live or work? You have to make science personal. What benefit does the district or state derive from your work, or work related to it? This could be students educated; this could be grants attracted; this could be lives transformed. You have to find that personal thing that works for you and your Congressperson.
  3. I should note that I actually DID get in something about the travel ban in this letter… but I absolutely, never ever used that phrase. “Travel ban” is certainly a partisan way of referring to the executive travel order. Instead, I merely related a personal anecdote about one of my former students who came to SMU from one of the countries on the banned list (I never noted that – I just named the country. The staffer reading the letter will get it). I explained how the student went on to earn a PhD and now has a job offer in the US and will go on to train the next generation of American scientist. I made this personal – my school attracting great talent to North Texas – and then made it clear that such people have value to us as a nation (training our next generation, making a life here, being an American now).

Look, you have to do what feels right to you. Be angry if you must. Make demands. But I view letter-writing to local Congressional offices as building alliances and offering them little bits of ammunition to use on the floor of the Senate or House. That little paragraph I wrote about my former student might wind up in a floor speech by one of my Members of Congress if they decide to oppose the ban with Congressional action. I didn’t ask them to do one thing or another; I just handed them a bullet. They can use it if they want, or toss it aside. But they cannot say I didn’t write to them and explain my views on such things.

Should I do the “March for Science”?

There is an coming planned march in Washington D.C. in support of science. I fear, personally, that is a bit premature – to plan such an event when no formal policy action has been taken. I, however, don’t buy that participating in such a march “politicizes science” – science is already politicized inside and outside of Washington, and marching to draw attention to the importance of science and scientists to the nation is doing nothing more than making Americans understand that scientists are people, neighbors, friends, constituents… Americans (and even many non-Americans who choose to pursue scientific research here for a constellation of reasons).

It’s a personal decision. Beware of the march getting hijacked for one political cause or another. Scientists are not liberal or conservative. They are scientists. If people feel they cannot participate because they hold political views that they feel are not valued at this march, then indeed this event has failed. That is my caution. Heed it or not.

Science in the age of Trump

The age of Trump is no different than the age of Pope Urban VIII (under whose Papal authority Galileo was tried on suspicion of heresy): science should be practiced the same way, no matter what dark vision of the state is in power. After all, science was the light that survived all the shadows of the Inquisition, the purge of “Jewish Academics” from Nazi Germany, the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s… science will shine because scientists will do it in spite of people telling them they are not valued, not conforming to the will of the State, not yielding results that favor the opinions of the ruling party. Science is about finding something as close to natural truth as one can obtain, and that kind of truth, even blasted in an assault of “alternative facts” and political acid, will outlast the dark forces that amassed to end it in the first place.

So be a good scientist, and science will endure. And when you have to act, do so in accord with the values we hold most dear in a scientist: dispassionate commitment to the truth, whatever discomfort that brings to you or anyone else. Hold those in power to account, but choose wisely when you pour in your energy to act. You don’t need to act on everything, but make sure when you act you do it wisely and firmly. If we work together, someone can act on everything, and we can share the load of being both citizens and scientists.






[6] Before anyone argues with me: Carson is a medical doctor, which is not the same as being a scientist (Engineers are to Physicists what Medical Doctors are to Biologists, if you want to use analogy to understand); Zinke only holds a Bachelors Degree in Geology, which means he took classes but has no practical scientific experience; Perdue is a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine – again, not a scientist; Price is a Medical Doctor; Perry holds only a Bachelor of Science degree in Animal Science; Shuklin is a Medical Doctor. In contrast, the two previous presidents had at least one PhD scientist in their cabinet (e.g. Samuel Bodman, Steve Chu, and Ernest Moniz).



[9] Also, if things get really back and you decide it’s time to seek refuge or asylum in another country, you better have a good resume to submit to a lab or university in another country. Do good science! The reason that scientists were able to get out of Nazi Germany was because they had excellent track records and American and British Universities were able to create positions for them. But if they had wasted time opposing the government and dropped the ball on their work, it would have been harder to justify the expenditure. At least, that would probably be true in a modern era.