Science will need safe havens to sustain enquiry and collaboration

At Sofoi we are deeply concerned about the US Administration’s lack of support for scientific research and the rejection of science as a basis for policy-making.  The recently proposed budget cuts to US government agencies engaged in climate research are only the latest in a series of assaults against science in public life. 

The United States has been central to scientific progress over the past century.   Government agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA, and United States Geological Survey (USGS), as well as the national research laboratories have been at the forefront of pushing the boundaries of scientific knowledge on the environment and climate.  Regulatory bodies including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), have sought to apply this knowledge to protect the health of citizens and the natural ecosystems they depend on.  

These institutions are now at great risk as a result of what can only be described as a concerted strategy to undermine the role of science in shaping public policy.  This strategy has seen leadership positions in key government departments and agencies being given to climate change deniers.  It has involved the scrubbing of climate change references and data from official government websites. In the latest phase it is seeking to eviscerate the agencies engaged in climate and energy research such as the Department of Energy, the EPA, the NOAA, NASA, and the USGS.

But the danger is not simply a matter of funding.  The more insidious risk is that scientists become cowed, intimidated, that they fail to communicate the evidence, and that they shift their research focus to accommodate the preferences of their political masters.  Scientific progress and innovation rely on the freedom to think and to ask questions, to openly share ideas and exchange insights. It is no coincidence that most of the great scientific and technological advances of our era have emerged from democracies where freedom of thought and expression have been sacrosanct.

However, as the pressure mounts, the “public space” for such open debate, enquiry and dialogue, will be constricted. The pressure will be particularly acute for scientists and researchers employed in at-risk government-funded programmes or agencies, where the actions of the administration are likely to have a chilling effect by instilling fear and uncertainty.

Nor are the Internet and social media immune to the creeping authoritarianism.  The Internet, rather than being a utopian public square connecting all of humanity, is increasingly becoming a battleground into which information arsonists hurl post-truth firebombs.   Popular social media, when not dealing in trifles, has become a balkanised and rancorous shoutbox.

A greater public role for scientists and researchers is essential to resist the anti-science movement.  Some courageous researchers and scientists are actively engaged in the fight-back, calling out the falsehoods, taking to the media to defend the value of science, and even seeking elected office.  Unfortunately, in order to have their voices heard, many have had to go “undercover” and create rogue online identities to avoid being identified and targeted.

Scientists and researchers also need protected spaces where they can exchange ideas and facts, places where they can communicate about their work without constantly needing to filter or censor their thoughts, places where they can loosen their guard and focus on what they are passionate about, the pursuit of knowledge and truth.  At Sofoi, we are dedicated to maintaining such a haven for scientists and researchers.

Scientific research will be critical to addressing global challenges such as climate change, food security, or antibiotic resistance. We need science to be adventurous, uninhibited, open, and collaborative.  The greatest danger is that efforts to inhibit the free flow of ideas, adulterate facts and peddle lies will sow doubt and confusion, undermine the search for knowledge and truth, and thwart human progress.

Image: NASA/Kathryn Hansen   License conditions