Science Out In A Trump: Threats On Both Sides Of The Pond

24/01/2017 12:37

"As in political revolutions, so in paradigm choice- there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community...this issue of paradigm choice can never be unequivocally settled by logic and experiment alone." So wrote Thomas Kuhn, the American physicist and philosopher in his classic book, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions". On both sides of the Atlantic, political revolutions are well underway. Not only was the assent of the "relevant communities" crucial to both; logic and experiment played almost no role in either case.

From the beginning of his first term, Ex-President Obama championed science, "It's time we once again put science at the top of our agenda and worked to restore America's place as the world leader in science and technology." He was the first sitting president to publish a paper in a leading scientific journal, introduced the Affordable Care Act, led on climate change and precision medicine and appointed the first Chief Data Scientist in White House history.

The United States wakes up with a post-inauguration hang-over and Donald John Trump, its 45th President, begins the business of running the world's superpower. I am an optimist. I can, at times, be a pragmatist. But I am, above all, a scientist and I am deeply concerned at the scientific paradigm shift which Trump is ushering in. The White House has already removed its climate change website and the Affordable Care Act lies dismantled. Trump has already commissioned Robert Kennedy Jr. to lead a commission to investigate a link between autism and the MMR vaccination, a theory has been repeatedly debunked by a huge body of scientific evidence. A disregard for science in favour of ill-informed opinion is a retrograde step by any standard, but particularly stark in its contrast with the previous administration.

Many parallels have been drawn between the UK's vote for Brexit and the US vote for Trump, both in terms of causes and effects. Neither vote is being hailed as a blessing for science. Science is not just the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. It leads to a culture of unprejudiced enquiry across societies. In the global ranking of universities, American institutions dominate- 11 of the top 20, and 63 of the top 200 worldwide. The UK also punches far above its weight in size with 5 institutions in the top 20. The higher education sector is an important part of an economy both inwardly and outwardly and is driven by science. It creates the workforce, fuels technology and innovation, creates wealth and leads to sustainable education and development. However, in both countries, universities have historically relied on their ability to attract the brightest and the best from all over the world, and this is difficult to reconcile with the closing of a country's borders. As the UK is already discovering through loss of European Union research funding and reductions in student numbers from Europe and beyond, contradictory policy statements and posturing have direct and indirect consequences on business models and reputations of universities.

Paul Kalanithi, an American neurosurgeon, wisely wrote, "Science is based on reproducibility and manufactured objectivity. As strong as that makes its ability to generate claims about matter and energy, it also makes scientific knowledge inapplicable to the existential, visceral nature of human life, which is unique and subjective and unpredictable." In the US and the UK, the campaigns of Trump and Brexit respectively capitalised upon that failure of scientific communities to connect with broader communities. In both countries, "anti-expert" and "post-truth" movements, where statements on Twitter and opinionated blogs often shout louder than peer-reviewed research and evidence, pose real threats to the methods and outcomes of science.

In a changing geopolitical landscape and an interconnected world, both the US and the UK must look for new partners and new lessons, whether in trade, politics or higher education, and nothing can cross borders like science. The introspective insularity that Brexit and Trump celebrate are the antithesis of the cross-disciplinary, global collaboration of the scientific endeavour. At the 104th Indian Science Congress last week in Tirupati, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the case for "scientific social responsibility", along the lines of "corporate social responsibility", to connect leading academic institutes with the public. Scientists have never been needed more on both sides of the pond, and all over the world.