Today, on April 23, 2018, a statement was released by 317 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. It calls for “the Federal Government to maintain scientific content on publicly accessible websites, to appoint qualified personnel to positions requiring scientific expertise, to cease censorship and intimidation of Government scientists, and to reverse the decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Accord.”
We are the three writers and organizers of this statement. Although our expertise is in very different areas—economics, astrophysics and climate science—we share a common concern. It relates to the dismissal of science and scientific understanding by the current administration. This piece explains why we decided to write the statement, what we hope to accomplish with its release, and how interested readers can help to achieve the goals quoted above.
Today’s statement had its genesis in an open letter by members of the National Academy of Sciences published in September 2016. The open letter warned of the potentially serious negative consequences of a U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, an action called for by then-candidate Donald J. Trump.
In the aftermath of the last U.S. presidential election, many of the negative consequences mentioned in the September 2016 open letter are now unfolding. The Trump administration has initiated the process of U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, and continues to cast doubt on the reality and seriousness of human-caused climate change. Negative consequences are now affecting many areas of science—not just climate science. The administration has shown a systematic disregard for using sound scientific information in public policymaking. Science inconsistent with the administration’s ideological goals is ignored, suppressed, portrayed as too uncertain, and dismissed as politically and financially motivated.
This systematic disregard for science prompted our efforts to develop today’s new statement. We strongly believe that there is no future in ignorance. The United States does not benefit if it kicks the problem of human-caused climate change down the road, if it ignores sensible energy policies or if it regards access to clean air and clean water as a privilege of the few.
The ability to perform research and advance scientific understanding is not an inalienable right, given to us in perpetuity by virtue of the accident of our birthplace. Powerful forces in the current administration seek to constrain our understanding of the world, and how and why it is changing. Such forces of unreason are emboldened if they encounter inaction and silence; they thrive if scientific myths, misconceptions and disinformation are repeated without being challenged.
The statement we and our NAS colleagues issued today is an attempt to move beyond inaction and silence. Its message is clear: “Ignore science at your peril.” Perhaps the administration will pay no heed to this message; perhaps the message will be lost in the daily background noise of political events. Even if the administration is not listening, there is still value in warning publicly about the consequences of living in a country that pursues an anti-science agenda. We believe that millions of U.S. citizens are listening to this warning, and share our concern about the kind of country we are passing on to future generations.
Scientists have special responsibilities to inform the public on key societal issues that are relevant to their specific expertise. We are doing that today. But scientists are only a small part of the overall effort to rebut ignorance. Each of us has the ability to change our society for the better.
There are many creative ways of catalyzing change. We can seek reliable information on complex scientific issues, drawing on sources like the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. National Climate Assessment, Scientific American and government agencies. We can share that information with our colleagues, friends, family and neighbors, through conversation, letters to newspapers, and social media. We can encourage quality science education in our public schools, and ensure that science is taught accurately. We can support organizations advocating for the importance of science in society. We can become involved in the political process, and elect representatives who understand the value of science.
We live in a complex world. We face many existential problems: climate change, pandemics, terrorism, the threat of nuclear war, and diminishing food and water security. How we deal with these issues will shape the well-being of many future generations. The statement issued today is a reminder that ignorance is a poor strategy for solving complex challenges. We all lose if science is excluded from government. We hope you help us to share this message widely.