They were his most ardent supporters. They were largely responsible for his election. And so far, they are still backing him.
They are the workers in Rust Belt states who lost their manufacturing jobs and the coal workers in Appalachia who found their mines shuttered. They are men and women without a college education in rural and small town America who are frightened they will soon be joining the ranks of the unemployed or underemployed.
Scientists and science supporters who are planning to march in Washington and other cities around the country on April 22 need to pay close attention to the plight of the voters who propelled Donald J. Trump to the White House. Here’s why.
The president promised his populist adherents he would bring jobs back by restructuring trade deals, deporting undocumented workers and eliminating federal regulations. But he’s almost certain to fail across the board because technology is the real source of the job losses. And it’s simply not possible for the president to decree a return to the halcyon days of Middle Americana.
The permanently displaced workers and those that are on the cusp of dislocation might not blame President Trump for failing to deliver on his promises, but they could direct their populist, anti-elitist anger toward the architects of the technological advances that have diminished their lives. As they see it, the devils are big business that does not have their interests at heart, big government that is too remote and dysfunctional, Wall Street that hums tirelessly to further enrich the already wealthy and, finally, the ivory towers of academia, which house the archetypal elites.
For decades, American science has been delivering remarkable benefits for the American people: diagnostic tools and cures for diseases, smart phones and tablets, the Internet and the Web, energy efficient lighting and appliances, safer and more reliable cars, advanced military technologies that protect us at home and abroad—the list is long.
Yet, while science and technology have powered economic growth in post-World-War-II America, far too many people have ceased reaping the benefits. Robots, computers and global telecommunication technologies have displaced them in factories, warehouses and call centers.
Fracking, a high-tech advance, has made natural gas so plentiful and cheap, that coal can no longer compete for generating electricity. The mining jobs President Trump promised to bring back to Appalachia, won’t materialize. And to the extent that coal continues to be extracted in more efficient Western surface mines, autonomous trucks , will soon put a big dent in that workforce, as well.
Losing a large chunk of a paycheck as a worker does when he moves from assembling cars or mining coal to flipping hamburgers is hard enough. But that option might soon vanish, as fast-food restaurants, such as Wendy’s, thin their employment rolls through automation.
March for Science participants, whether they are scientists or science lovers, need to recognize that scientific discoveries and the technological miracles they spawn are creating a society of selective beneficiaries: those enjoying a comfortable life and those who hardly able put food on the table.
If marchers for science come across as elitists craving admiration for creative scientific endeavors, they will alienate the voters responsible for installing Donald Trump in the Oval Office. If they harangue the president for failing to separate scientific fact from political fiction and cutting federal research budgets, they will alienate those voters even more.
Marchers must understand that technological change today is happening so fast that the fabric of American society could be stretched to its breaking point within less than two decades. According to a recent Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) report, 38 percent of all American jobs will vanish within the next 15 years as a result of automation, artificial intelligence and deep learning. From Wall Street to Main Street, robots and computers will displace workers who perform highly repetitive tasks.
The number of jobs lost, according to the PwC analysis, might possibly be offset by the creation of new digital technology jobs, as well as others generated by increased societal wealth and spending related to gains in economic productivity.
But that optimistic outcome is far from certain, and even if it does materialize, the benefits will not be shared universally. New jobs will not magically appear in the same geographic regions where old ones disappeared. And the new ones will require different sets of skills and higher levels of education than many of the displaced workers have.
Without adequate planning, the social unrest that manifested itself in the 2016 populist uprising will only worsen. Although scientists can’t solve the problem, as progenitors of the technological revolution, they have a special obligation to get it on the agenda of elected officials.
If policymakers get it right, a dystopian future could conceivably turn into a utopian dream. But getting there won’t be easy, and it will require a significant change in how we view collective responsibility.