Concern persists about President Trump’s impact on science, as his travel ban keeps an award winner away from the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting

The US’s new president is off to a very rocky start with the country’s research community. Leaders and attendees of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) February meeting in Boston repeatedly expressed serious concerns about President Trump.

A principal cause of anxiety is the executive order on immigration, signed by Trump just days after taking office in January, to temporarily bar the entry or return of individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran and Sudan. The directive has been damaging to US science, despite the fact that court actions have kept it on hold since early February.

Among those unable to attend the AAAS meeting as a result of the executive order is Rania Mokhta, a computer engineer from Sudan University of Science and Technology in Khartoum, Sudan. She is one of this year’s five winners of the Elsevier Foundation Awards for Early-Career Women Scientists, and was to receive the award at the AAAS meeting.

‘We are sad that she was unable to attend the meeting in order to share her work and network with her colleagues, but I can assure her that she would be as welcome here as any other participant,’ said Geraldine Richmond, chair of the AAAS board of directors at the opening of the conference.

Staying in Sudan

Richmond, a chemistry professor at the University of Oregon, tells Chemistry World that concerns about Trump’s executive order being reinstated in a similar or amended form, and current ambiguities about how the US government will handle people from the seven targeted countries, kept Mokhtar away from the conference. She participated in the award ceremony via video.

There is still a great deal of uncertainty around the immigration directive. Trump has announced imminent plans to issue a new superseding executive order, and it is unclear how that might differ from the original version, which sparked massive protests after people from the seven named nations were detained for hours at major US airports.

‘Let’s be clear: science depends on openness, transparency and the free flow of ideas and people,’ Richmond told the AAAS audience, to extended applause. ‘Limitations on the ability of scientists to communicate with their peers and with the public, and participate in meetings such as this one, will harm the scientific enterprise,’ she warned.

‘Beginner’s mistake’

At a AAAS breakfast briefing for science journalists, the organisation’s chief executive, former congressman and physicist Rush Holt, suggested that Trump’s so-called ‘travel ban’ inadvertently affected science due to a ‘beginner’s mistake’. ‘I think that shows an ignorance of how science works — the fact that no one stopped to think of the implications of this for science,’ Holt stated. ‘Along with the diplomatic and political implications, there are clearly scientific implications.’

I am getting more calls than ever from scientists who say they are thinking about running for office

Rush Holt, AAAS chief executive

Beyond the immigration executive order, there is also significant concern that ideology and ideological assertions are crowding out evidence in policymaking. In particular, the scientific community is worried about what is seen as dismissiveness of science by the new administration, as well as efforts that reportedly aim to control the scientific message of agencies like the US Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency.

There is a general sentiment that the new administration’s inexperience and an information vacuum have combined to create a tense atmosphere in which misunderstandings can take root and grow into panic. ‘It has reached a point where people are truly troubled by what this means for the practice of science, and the ability of science to bring its benefits to the population at large,’ Holt remarked.

AAAS president Barbara Schaal, a biology professor at Washington University in St Louis, agreed. ‘We need to base policy on facts, on what we know about particular situations.’ Schaal noted, for example, that any policy addressing lead or arsenic in drinking water requires facts about how many parts per million of the chemical is present in the water, and the resultant health consequences.

‘Alternative facts’

‘The fact that there could be a conversation about “alternative facts” is deeply disturbing,’ Schaal remarked, referencing a phrase coined by Kellyanne Conway, counselor to Trump.

Holt warned that scientists ‘should not hang back and think that the facts will speak for themselves’. President Obama’s long-time science adviser, John Holdren, agreed. ‘We could be in for a major shift in the culture around science and technology and evidence in government,’ Holdren said. ‘We appear to have a president now who resists facts that do not comport with his preferences, and that bodes ill for survival of the Obama administration’s emphases on scientific integrity, transparency, public access, and it bodes ill for continuing the practice of having [science, technology, engineering and maths] experts at the table in administration policy discussions where their expertise might be germane.’ Taken together, Holdren warned that all of these things threaten the US’s ability to recruit and retain high-calibre talent.

Neal Lane, a physicist who served as science adviser to former president Bill Clinton and previously as director of the US National Science Foundation, said the present moment may offer a valuable opportunity for the US’s disparate scientific community and its various organisations to unite and amplify a common message in defence of science and research funding.

In fact, there are signs that US scientists are being proactive. ‘I am getting more calls since November than I can remember ever receiving from scientists who say they are thinking about running for office,’ Holt revealed.