President Trump – first response

This morning I was asked for a comment on the implications of the US presidential election for the scientific world. This was my immediate response:

Unlike the day after the EU referendum vote, when I was bitterly upset, I just feel numb today. I don’t know if that is a kind of despair settling in because despair is precisely the wrong type of reaction to Trump winning the US presidential election. Throughout the campaign he showed himself to be a fascist and racist who bragged about his mis-treatment of women. He showed scant regard for truthfulness and espoused denialist views on climate change. It seems unlikely that the scientific and research prowess of the USA will flourish under such a president, but perhaps the checks and balances built into the US constitution will provide some sort of protection (notwithstanding the fact that the Republicans appear to be in control of Congress and the Senate).

More worrying is the sense of a turn in the tide of history arising from Trump’s victory and the Brexit vote. I’m in my fifties and in my lifetime I have seen Britain join the EU, I have seen the end of the Cold War, and the end of apartheid in South Africa. In my own home nation I have seen the IRA lay down its arms. And yet here we are witnessing the rise of divisive nationalist and xenophobic instincts, which have been deliberately agitated in both recent election campaigns.

Clearly part of the disgruntlement at the status quo is due to the unequal spread of the benefits of globalisation (exacerbated by the lack of consequences for rich bankers in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis). That has to be addressed politically. For researchers, increasingly branded as a self-serving elite that is out of touch with the common people, we need to redouble our efforts to stand up for evidence, and for the intrinisically international nature of what we do. We need to work harder to demonstrate the relevance of our work to the wider population and the values that underpin it. In the UK we are already pretty good at public engagement but I think we may not be good enough for the times that we now find ourselves in.

Update (14:11, 11 Nov 2016): Part of my response was reported in an update to this article in Nature.


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7 Responses to President Trump – first response

  1. Paula Salgado says:

    Well said, Stephen, thanks.

  2. Amy C. says:

    Stephen, the public do not want to be talked with reasonably about science.

    It’s seventy years since scientists won the love of the publics and the politicians by building a great big bomb and precision shooty-things and winning a world war. Enthusiasm has waned ever since, except for a brief rekindling to do with flying to the moon and putting on a sticker that says MINE.

    These are the sorts of things scientists must do if they want public acceptance, let alone celebration. Make the kinds of miracles the public want. Most will never want to know how scientists do it. They just want the miracles.

    I have been working in science communication now for some years and the idea that if we just explain to people etc. never seems to die. I think it is a bad misconception. There is a ring of nonscientists around science that really does care, really is interested. They are extremely important allies, defenders, explainers. They are our real audience, I think, and I believe it’s crucial to put the time and energy into talking with them, showing them, being friends, and *listening to them* rather than turning backs and busying ourselves with each other. But there’s only so much they can do. Because they are also a minority.

    As for the tide of intolerance…well, you’ve seen it too, it sweeps in and out. During these times it’s important to talk and write about what can be, what has been, because there will be children who aren’t seeing it in front of their own eyes, but are interested, and want to make a more open and wonderstruck world again.

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks Amy. Lots to discuss there. I hope you don’t think I meant to imply that I thought the problem was just about explaining science to people, because I don’t – I was careful to use the word ‘engagement’. I agree that the ‘science-allies’ among of the public are an important group even if they are a minority. We could still do better by them. But we also need (though I don’t know how right now), to get out and talk with the people who aren’t science friendly. That will be tough and noisy but if the research community is serious about being relevant, it has to find a way.

  3. Pingback: Time to reclaim the values of science | Rapha-z-lab

  4. Steve Caplan says:

    The most worrying thing, beyond the racism and misogyny, is the idea that truth no longer matters.Once the need for truthfulness has been dispatched and anyone can make up whatever lies suit their purpose with no qualms or trouble being believed, then science is lost. Data becomes useless in an age where truth is not respected; for example, climate change becomes a hoax, and vaccine schedules should be altered because a political candidate declared that the current protocols issued by the Center for Disrase Control cause autism. Every yahoo with a twitter account becomes as important as a New York Times Pulitzer Prize wins my investigative reporter and can publish his own conspiracy theory. Bullying, racism and misogyny aside, this is tremendously damaging to science and scientists.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      That should read “Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter”–apologies, iPhone and autocorrect…

    • Stephen says:

      That is a worry. And that’s one of the reasons (I’ve been thinking of late) that it’s important to push harder on the open science agenda – open access, open data, open review. Not that these will affect most people but they are part of demonstrating a commitment to transparency and will, I hope, help to make more researchers be cognisant of the need to be aware of how they are perceived – and to take every opportunity to demonstrate the relevance of their work (however blue-skysie) to the wider world.

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