Resuscitating evidence-based policy

A case for the scientist-turned-politician

The scientific community stands among those who have been disrupted by the recent political turbulence in the US and around the world. US President Donald Trump has not shied away from rejecting empirical evidence, as demonstrated by his willingness to fuel unsubstantiated apprehension toward vaccines and downplay the reality of climate change.

Recent statements from the transitional head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Myron Ebell, are unlikely to assuage concerns over the integrity of the federal body and its data repository.

In an interview with The Guardian, Ebell insisted that any retraction of EPA data, research, and reports was unlikely, but argued that “a great deal of what the EPA puts out in the way of so-called ‘climate education’ — some of the research that they’ve not necessarily done but promoted — does not meet the minimal standards legally required by the federal information quality act. It therefore needs to be changed or withdrawn.”

Given the administration’s promulgation of ‘alternative facts’ and Ebell’s nondescript definition of what constitutes ‘climate education’, prospects for the protection of information at the EPA seem bleak.

It is not clear that the withdrawals to which Ebell referred would exclude the wealth of climate research on the EPA’s website. According to Ebell, “President Trump said during the campaign that he would like to abolish the EPA or ‘leave a little bit’. It is a goal he has and sometimes it takes a long time to achieve goals. You can’t abolish the EPA by waving a magic wand.”

The administration’s stance on the EPA is one of several examples illustrating the depreciating value of science at the executive branch of governments. As a result, a March for Science is in the works and has been scheduled for April 22.

The Washington-based protest has already spawned planning of sister marches that will extend beyond US borders.

Some have jumped headfirst into the realm of American politics. The not-for-profit organization 314 Action is aimed at facilitating the political success of those very individuals. Founded by Shaughnessy Naughton, a chemist-by-training who ran for office in the 2014 and 2016 Democratic primaries, the organization’s overarching goals include defending scientific integrity, increasing STEM education, and bolstering the role of scientific evidence in policymaking.

Speaking to The Atlantic, Naughton argued that scientists are often under the impression that their work is “above politics,” leading them to overlook the politicization of science. She cautions, however, that “politics is not above getting involved science… We’re losing, and the only way to stop that is to get more people with scientific backgrounds at the table.”

The organization tasks itself with outreach and engagement activities, while also providing the means and know-how for running a campaign. “Partly, we’re making the case for why they should run — and Donald Trump is really helping us with that… Then, we’re showing them how to run, and introducing them to our donor network,” Naughton said.

Naughton’s efforts through 314 Action — as well as her congressional bids — seem to have established a science-conscious constituency and a loyal base of donors. The organization will hold an online training session for political aspirants with a STEM background on March 14; over 1000 people are currently signed up.

One may argue that the organization’s commitment to exclusively back Democratic candidates invites criticism. After all, organizations that stem in part from the unwanted politicization of science may appear hypocritical if they align themselves exclusively with one party.

At the same time, it seems to be the case that the Democratic Party is more favourable toward science and data-driven policymaking, while Republican members of congress are more likely to express skepticism toward climate change. This may explain 314 Action’s choice.

Science is a highly collaborative practice that often transcends national borders. The US National Science Foundation (NSF) reported a considerable increase in the proportion of multinational publications in recent years. In 2003, journal articles resulting from international collaborations amounted to 13.2 per cent of published papers. In 2013, the figure rose to 19.2 per cent.

Given Canada’s ranking as America’s fifth most frequent collaborator, Canadian scientists will undoubtedly feel the ramifications of Trump’s policies and spending cuts. Furthermore, Trump’s immigration policies are likely to impact attendance at international conferences, whether they occur in Canada or the US.

Science is no beneficiary of isolationism. The adoption of isolationist policies puts countries at risk of falling behind in the progressive knowledge bandwagon. To overlook the economic and diplomatic setbacks of such a scenario would be naïve or short-sighted, at best.

The recent surge in protests highlights the following reality: Trump’s ascent to the Oval Office – and the consequent anxieties felt by many — provides fertile ground on which the politically engaged can sow their movements.

Note: a previous version of this article indicated that Ebell insisted that EPA data retraction was “likely.” Instead, Ebell insisted that it was unlikely.

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