When historians look back at the presidential election of 2016 they will certainly have many questions, but perhaps the biggest one isn’t getting enough attention today. “What the (insert the popular profanity of the future)?” they will likely ask. “Why was there hardly any mention of climate change?” Or will the future inhabitants of Earth be so distracted by survival that they won’t even care what happened in 2016 when the greatest country on the planet at that time denied this problem existed?
With just a few mentions in speeches—and, jaw-droppingly, no questions at the presidential debates—this omission marks a singular failure of the press and the political class. But it is indicative of a much broader systemic rot. Make no mistake; science was on the ballot this fall. And almost nobody took notice. But they should now because the Trump Administration is outlining an aggressive policy portfolio that not only puts our global response to climate change in deep jeopardy but that also threatens to radically change the fundamental direction of science in the United States.
The political press treats science as a niche issue. But I would argue that it is central to America’s military and economic might, that it shapes the health and welfare of our citizenry, and that our governmental support of the pure pursuit of knowledge through basic research is one of the defining symbols of American excellence. Science bolsters our global stature by its institutionalized respect for the truth, its evidence-based decision-making, and its willingness to accept differing opinions when the facts dictate them.
This is why we need to radically rethink how the press, scientists and politicians place science in the national discourse. And we can’t afford to wait. The top priority must be for scientists to try to engage the incoming administration. While the early indications of how a President Trump may approach issues of science are concerning, we cannot afford not to try. I would suggest that a group of Nobel Prize winners, members of the National Academy of Sciences and other scientific leaders who may get his attention, offer to meet with the President-elect to lay out what they think the biggest issues are. Top of the list is to assert the special role of science in planning for our future, especially, of course, when it comes to climate change.
Polling suggests that the public is not as rigid on issues of science as our recent political divide might suggest. Historically a strong science policy has been a place of bipartisan cooperation. Perhaps, with a President who owes little political capital to a national party, we can embrace a form of decision-making that has traditionally been apolitical and begin to base more of our policies on science. Perhaps our new President can be persuaded to listen to topics on which he hasn’t thought deeply. Perhaps he can see this as a way to rebuild America’s agriculture, manufacturing, and technology sector for the benefit of all. Of course this outreach effort may go nowhere. But we would be foolhardy not to try. Now is not the time for the scientific community and the new political leadership to withdraw from each other. If they do, each of them, and the rest of the country as well, will be damaged.
But scientists need an ally in making their case, and that must come from an active and involved press. The press can build bridges between the scientific community, the public, and elected officials. It can raise awareness of important issues and put pressure on obfuscating politicians. This posture for the press has been its role throughout the history of our democracy, and it must extend to a robust coverage of science. If science fails to engage with the leadership and with the people, the press will share a large part of the responsibility.
I would suggest that contrary to the general view in newsrooms, science stories are often very popular and could be a way to expand audience and reach. The problem I have long worried about is that there are not nearly enough editors and reporters with scientific training reporting and writing the news in America. The importance of this training isn’t only a matter of getting the facts right about science, it’s about understanding the spirit and process of discovery, the culture of the research enterprise and the relevance of science to so many other stories. The newsrooms that do cover science often turn to medical doctors. There is nothing wrong with that, but looking at almost all of at least the life sciences through the lens of human health is too limiting. It makes science seem reductive and constrained, rather than focusing on the exciting, innovative, and widespread applications of scientific research in improving our everyday lives.
What we need is sustained and improved partnerships between the press and the scientific community. We need more cross-pollination and engagement. We need experimentation on form, tone, content, and distribution. We cannot allow science content to be relegated to echo chambers or elite distribution outlets. We need to try to find a way to take the message to where the people are, through digital promotion, distribution and social media engagement.
I firmly believe science to be of the utmost importance to the world that I want my children and grandchildren to inherit. I believe it is a way to connect different groups, nations, and generations. I believe that scientists have more power in the public marketplace of ideas than they may realize. I refuse to believe that the moral weight of fact-based research has no place in what can seem like a post-truth era. All it takes is a Zika virus or the discovery of a new cancer treatment and the world comes pounding on the doors of the academy demanding relief.
I do not have much training in science. When I learned biology in school, Watson and Crick still hadn't discovered the structure of DNA. But as a journalist, I have realized that science is one of the biggest and most important stories of our age. Don’t get me wrong, there is some wonderful science journalism being done, especially in new forms emerging online and in such things as podcasts. But there needs to be much more of it and it must be more prominently distributed. At this point in my life, I am determined to make a contribution. I have teamed up with researchers and science-minded storytellers to try to shift this dynamic. I hope to have more news on that in the months ahead. But this is a cause that must be bigger than any one single effort. I am eager to lend my name and voice, as well as organizational support, reporting, production, promotion, and any other contribution I can make. But we will need as much help as possible.
In the end, science is about hope; it’s about expanding our horizons, and endeavoring to understand more. It is an instinct so deeply human, and an instinct we need now more than ever. An enterprise this core to our national future must enlist all who can help from the world of journalism and science. The public and the policymakers need to hear this message. Science creates self-evident truths that everyone can own. I believe the world is ready to listen if we can only find a better way to speak.