Trump’s dangerous war on science

In his approach to science, Donald Trump is following in the footsteps of autocrats of the past.

Published April 3, 2020 4:00AM (EDT)

 (AP/Matt Rourke/Getty/Aaron P. Bernstein)
(AP/Matt Rourke/Getty/Aaron P. Bernstein)

This article originally appeared on The Globalist.

Long before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world has known that Donald Trump has been playing fast and loose with science. Never mind that the U.S. President has no formal training in the field – and not even a lay person's knowledge of popular science.

A purposeful denier

Despite not being a scientist, Trump is a climate change denier. He has repeatedly called it a hoax and even declared it had been devised by the Chinese to impede U.S. economic growth. 

He has also incorrectly claimed that wind turbines cause cancer, slaughter birds and, anyway, trigger blackouts when there is no wind. Under his leadership, U.S. government agencies have stopped referring to climate change and no longer fund research in this area.

As a corollary to climate change denial, Trump has been creating difficulties for renewable energy producers. 

This was a purposeful move. The President of the United States is determined, no matter the cost, to encourage the production and use of fossil fuels, including such dirty hydrocarbons as coal. 

To that end, environmental regulations, which protect both nature and human health, have been eased or rescinded completely. Ambitious goals for motor vehicle efficiency set by the Obama Administration have been abandoned.

Playing God

And broader avenues of securing the health of the nation, such as focusing on emergency preparedness, have not just been disregarded by Mr. Trump. He has actively sought to hollow them out. 

The U.S. President did this, for example, by eliminatingthe National Security Council's global health security office early in his term. As the Washington Post reported in May 2018, the abrupt departure of Rear Admiral Timothy Ziemer meant that the White House had no one who would oversee the U.S. response to a global coronavirus pandemic. 

Trump's biodefense advisor left in 2019. Prior to the current outbreak, the Trump Administration cut the CDC staff inside China who would have been able to provide an early warning of COVID-19.

With that move, Trump ended up playing God. The United States is woefully unprepared for the pandemic.

Mr. Know-nothing becomes Mr. Know-it-all

Trump has been national cheer leader-in-chief and stock market booster-in-chief, with never a shred of doubt that he might not be right. To justify his initiatives and judgments, he has insisted on having superior knowledge, even though it is based on nothing more substantial than a hunch.

And therefore all experts who disagree with him are by definition wrong. 

A cousin of autocrats past

In his narcissistic approach to science, Trump is following in the footsteps of autocrats of the past. The result is likely to be similarly disastrous for the United States — and the rest of the world, as well.

Consider the case of Joseph Stalin. Raised in a small town in Georgia with an incomplete education at a seminary, the Soviet dictator was an ignoramus as far as science is concerned. However, that did not keep him from opining on scientific issues of the day. 

Stalin: Acceptable vs. unacceptable science

In fact, Stalin had strong opinions on science. Everything that didn't fit into the Marxist-Leninist world view was declared a bourgeois pseudoscience – and therefore needed to be stomped out. 

Since Stalin's secret police was quick to arrest everyone who disputed his opinions about anything, Soviet scientists quickly learned to agree.

Depressing science, depressing the Soviet Union

Stalin's most famous attacks were aimed at computer science and genetics — incidentally, two disciplines which are spearheading technological progress in the 21st century. 

His damage to Russia's biology establishment was especially severe. Before the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, Russia had some of the world's leading biologists. In fact, two of them, Ivan Pavlov in 1904 and Ilya Mechnikov in 1908, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine. 

That didn't impress Stalin. And so it was that, in 1940, world-renowned geneticist Nikolai Vavilov was arrested and was left to starve to death in a labor camp.

Today's United States

Now, in the United States of today, the punishment that is meted out is not quite that harsh. Cutting off funding for anything that is not deemed in line with what the boss wants and cherishes will pretty much yield the same result. 

Right before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the White House released its budget request for fiscal 2021, which begins on October 1st. 

As during his three previous years in office, Trump proposed cuts in scientific and medical research. In previous years, Congress restored those cuts, but now Trump proposed a 7% cut in funding for the National Institute of Health and cuts for the National Science Foundation.

The tip of the anti-science iceberg

But this is only the tip of an anti-science iceberg. A recent article in the New York Times reported cuts in spending on science research, termination of important scientific projects and hounding of scientists across the board. 

What Trump has made plain is that science is no longer respected and scientists' advice in government is no longer sought or pointedly ignored. 

In lieu of the research done by scientists, Trump's intuition is now supposed to become the fount of the nation's wisdom.

As a result, hundreds of scientists have left the public sector, ensuring that the damage from Trump's policies will extend well beyond the term of his administration.

U.S. immigration policy and the non-advancement of science

These trends are exacerbated by Trump's immigration policy and America First slogans which translate into an anti-foreigner bias around the country. 

Even before the onset of COVID-19, Trump's xenophobic approach made foreign scientists already think twice before considering to come to the United States to work and students to study — or to stay on after getting an American education. 

In fact, a Chinese scientist at the University of Florida, who was driven out of the United States in 2019, is credited with inventing a fast coronavirus test.

What is the real base of U.S. global power?

Trump's deliberate mishandling of science is nothing short of a disaster for his country. The United States of America is a global leader in a large measure because of its prowess in science and technology. 

Global competition in innovation is intense, because everyone in the world realizes that those who control technology own the future.

Thanks to climate change denial in the United States which, to be fair, predated Trump, the country has already fallen behind China in electric vehicle technology. 

Renewable energy, which will be the source of jobs and economic growth in the future, is already a reality in the EU, but still in its infancy in the United States. 

Science and world power

For the past 500 years, denying the relevance and the validity science has been the best way to become a global loser. 

While Spain and Italy burned their heretics at the stake, England was developing a scientific establishment, which allowed it to become a dominant world power.

By Alexei Bayer

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