Why Journalists Are Wrong to Say Trump Is at War With Science

By endorsing the overblown rhetoric that science is under siege, we play into the narrative that the media is just another partisan actor.

  • Under President Trump, American science is better-funded, at least by some measures, than it has ever been.

    Visual: Mark Wilson/Getty

VIEWPOINTS: Partner content, op-eds, and Undark editorials.

It may surprise you to learn that the Trump administration has, on quite a number of occasions, championed or advanced science. It has strongly backed increased funding for quantum computing and promoted artificial intelligence research. The Trump Food and Drug Administration has sought to regulate e-cigarettes based on scientific findings about their addictive potential. The National Cancer Institute under Trump has pushed for increased data sharing and shifted more funding to external researchers. NASA has launched multiple science instruments just this year and has more in the pipeline. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is rolling out a new weather model.

But the dominant narrative is that the administration is conducting a “war on science” and that science is “under siege.” As a science journalist, I often get asked questions like, “Wow, it’s a really bad time for science, isn’t it?” I find myself explaining that, actually, American science is better-funded, by some measures, than it has ever been, and the U.S. federal science workforce remains probably the most impressive scientific organization the planet has ever seen. A feared exodus of scientists out of the government or even the country has hardly amounted to a trickle at most agencies. (At the Environmental Protection Agency — probably the most politically embattled science agency — more than 250 scientists have retired, taken buyouts, or quit, but several non-science agencies have seen larger staff reductions.)

Many decry proposed science agency budget cuts that sprout reliably under the Trump administration each year, like mushrooms after a spring rain. While such cuts would be drastic if enacted, the administration proposes similar cuts to many other discretionary programs — food stamps and public housing, for example — as well as Medicare and Medicaid. There doesn’t seem to be an anti-science agenda per se; there seems to be an agenda to cut spending on almost everything not related to the military or security. Similarly, while science and scientists definitely suffered during the recent government shutdown, they were collateral damage, not direct targets. And of course, Congress has rejected all these cuts; science agency budgets have generally remained steady or increased since Trump was elected.

The American conversation around science is much bigger than any president. Much of the science we taxpayers fund involves long-timeline activities that cannot be supported at universities. Did you know, for example, that since the 1930s, through Republican and Democrat administrations and even a world war, U.S. Forest Service scientists have designed and conducted a forest inventory that is the envy of the world? It’s unglamorous, non-breaking-news work, but it provides a crucial baseline for all kinds of research and decision making, and it has been replicated by other countries. By the way, the inventory is continuing under Trump — in fact, it’s improving, thanks to innovative uses of new technology. Government scientists continue to do lots of climate science, too, even if the administration doesn’t want to talk about it.

Of course, every president likes some science more and other science less. President Obama clearly was very interested in climate science, because he was interested in tackling climate change. He was less interested in space, cancelling a troubled program to return humans to the moon without putting in place a comparably visionary program, and allowing us to become dependent on other countries to shuttle our astronauts. Yet no one accused Obama of a war on space science. As a less visible example, the Obama Department of Energy tried to quietly kill a research program on the health impacts of radiation, despite protests from some scientists that we still don’t understand whether or not low levels of radiation from nuclear power plants, medical equipment, and other sources are harmful.

And, as I have written, the Obama administration was often oddly averse to talking about the science it was doing, throwing up barriers to communication between its scientists and the media. (The Trump administration has generally kept these barriers in place and added new ones.)

But since Obama invited students to present at White House science fairs, addressed scientific society meetings, and staffed a robust Office of Science and Technology Policy, he mostly got a pass for the times his administration defunded science or suppressed scientific information access, and retained his sterling reputation as a science champion. The main difference today is that the man in the White House doesn’t even pretend to care what scientists are learning.

Even when an opportunity presents itself, such as the December signing of the National Quantum Initiative Act, he does not seem to have much to say on the subject — a rarity for Trump. And scientists clearly don’t like the cold shoulder they’re getting from this administration after the warmth they grew used to from the previous one. Hence, rhetoric suggesting that science is under “relentless assault” arises from groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists.

There’s no question that the Trump administration often ignores or downplays science when weighing policy decisions that scientists could clearly contribute to. But that is very different from assaulting or fighting a war against science. Remember how the coal industry and right-wing politicians accused the Obama administration of carrying out a “war on coal” as it tried to reduce air and water pollution and emissions from the electricity sector? Science advocates are now doing something similar.

Fine: It’s an advocate’s job to advocate. But journalists should not. It is not the media’s role to take sides in a political fight, or to decide that certain science, such as environmental or public health science, gets to represent all science. It is the media’s job to report what is happening, as comprehensively as possible, so that readers can make the best decisions possible. The science media have done part of this job well. They’ve reported exhaustively on the Trump administration’s efforts to cut climate science programs, disband science advisory panels at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior, and to suppress scientists’ findings that certain chemicals such as chlorpyrifos and PFAS harm health. Science journalists’ stories helped get Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke — two ethically compromised agency heads — ousted. Kudos for that.

But we have done a less stellar job of covering the science agencies that Trump has not directly interfered with, and of painting a complete picture that can help Americans understand what their $86.5-billion-a-year investment in science is getting them. As in so many areas, we have let Donald Trump drive the agenda.

I implore my fellow science journalists to avoid getting dragged into political fights against the present administration. Doing so just plays into Trump’s narrative that the media are aligned against him. It makes it even harder to reach those who we most need to reach — people who have fallen under the sway of false narratives and conspiracy theories on climate change, vaccines, and other issues. And it makes all our readers less informed and less able to participate effectively in our democracy.

Gabriel Popkin writes about science and the environment from Mount Rainier, Maryland, just outside the nation’s capital. His work has appeared in a variety of general-interest publications, including The New York Times, Nature, Science, The Washington Post, Scientific American, and National Geographic.

See What Others Are Saying

10 comments / Join the Discussion

    “It is not the media’s role to take sides in a political fight, or to decide that certain science, such as environmental or public health science, gets to represent all science. It is the media’s job to report what is happening, as comprehensively as possible, so that readers can make the best decisions possible.”
    Not really. It would be impossible to report everything as comprehensively as possible. That would be like saying there should be no media and citizens should just read every document produced in its entirety. At some point, a journalist is always going to have to make a subjective decision: Is this story newsworthy?

    There was no time when journalists were perfectly objective. At different times journalists found certain stories not-newsworthy, stories of sexual assault and racism, for instance. Ignoring these stories was always a subjective decision that shaped public perception in certain political ways, whether the journalists admitted it or not.

    Historians have long been discussing how the past may be objective (what did happen vs what didn’t happen), but history is subjectively made (whose stories are told, whose stories are ignored?). This is true for journalism too.

    As a close follower of quantum information sciance and other disruptive technologies, Mr. Popkin, you are 100% correct in what you are saying. Apolitical science research and development is needed. Facts matter; something, left out in mass media which has led to the hysteria and soon to be designated Trump Derangement Syndrome.

    Good piece, keep up the efforts.

    Part of the problem is the politicizing of science. Thoughtful discussion on scientific issues does not happen in the press or in goverment. Equating science and budgets is not correct. In my work, I developed proven, patent pending, digestive, FDA additive Fish pesticide. The target is the bighead and silver Asian carps. Federal support is close to zero in spite of Federal spending of over $500 million since 2008. The money goes for barriers, like the proposed $778 million Brandon Lock barrier and commercial harvesting. Neither will accomplish anything. The scientist want to continue their work and so expect their budgets to be renewed each year. In the meantime rural Mississippi Basin America suffers for a solution. I have been turned down on 8 of 9 grants, one is still pending. Investors have no interest because the market is too small. Want to know why the Federal government pays too much for things, bad science and bad decisions.

    The basic problem is that Trump denigrates the science that underpins issues that he wishes would go away, e.g., climate change, pollution of the environment, etc. He calls such science a hoax, fake news, and so on. To me that is a war of words directed against any area is science that is at odds with his political agenda. He has no apparent grasp of how science works, as exemplified by his oxymoronic claim that he has an “instinct” for science. He probably doesn’t even know the scientific definition of instinct.

    This article says “the dominant narrative is that the administration is conducting a “war on science””.

    Sadly, while that may be true, the piece fails the first test of science. It provides no evidence to support that assertion.

    Can someone point me towards a scientifically credible bit of the media where a writer with a track record in reporting science policy has written of a “war on science”?

    It may be that there are dozens of articles in Science, Nature, The NYT etc., that make this argument. I am just too lazy to go and look for them.

    PS I do not agree with Dan Vergano that journalism is a “profession”. That label requires a wall load of certificates that testify to a learning process that takes years. Journalism is a “trade”. You don’t have to pass exams to join the club.

    I’m very sympathetic to this line of argument, and appreciate it as a voice of caution against indulging in the moronic inferno of the political world. But a Trump administration “war on science” is light years far from a dominant narrative in any sense at the moment anywhere. I sit in a DC bureau amid political reporters, and I can tell you it’s just not what is going on. A pair of articles from two UK outlets pales against the days of the Bush administration where this was a common idea.

    Which is a shame, because the collapse of a central premise undercuts the helpful cautions that the article is trying to get across. Every administration going back to Clinton has increasingly tried to kneecap reporters access to federal scientists, reports, and other public records. This administration has continued that pattern in gross ways e.g. telling CDC health statistics officials to bury reporter data requests. It is a continuation of this pattern under Trump, but nobody serious is hyperventilating that this is a war on science (even the Nature piece is about EPA, where contra this article, the exodus of scientists is a genuine public health concern.) But the news that the US still funds science under Trump, which I think the article is requesting someone publish, isn’t news, and it isn’t clear to me why anyone would think it is.

    There are other problems. The article suggests that it is not the job of journalists to be advocates, which is one view of things (the view I try to have) but it is not the case for everyone. Tell it to Upton Sinclair. Plenty of good science journalists are advocates for one viewpoint or another, it’s a long standing role in journalism. The whole field is devoted to cheerleading scientific discoveries, for God’s sake, which is its own form of advocacy.

    The article also suggests it is the job of reporters to tell readers about agencies where the Trump administration is doing good things. Is it? It seems like we have plenty of flacks to do that and our time on Earth might be better spent telling readers about things that are harming them, such as the genuinely dubious arguments made at EPA, NHTSA, or DOI right now for example, about matters of environmental health or conservation, rather than celebrating every black hole sighting announcement orchestrated by those PR folks. But to each his own. Journalism is a free country, which is one of the things that makes it good and useful.

    There is also a contention that the job of science reporters is to enlighten the benighted folks who doubt climate science or vaccines. Is it? This is the so-called deficit model of science illiteracy and it doesn’t work, for one objection. For another, the job of swaying these folks seems to me to walk perilously close to the advocacy we are advised to avoid. There is a lot of evidence that these issues aren’t amenable to our efforts, regardless. In a democracy our role is to provide readers with journalism as our individual talents and interests best allow, I’d argue. That’s why our names are on the stories — it is a profession, not a delivery service.

    Apologies if I’ve read too much into the article, but this particular scolding seems unwarranted right now. What we need is more science reporters diving into the nitty gritty of the administration naming regulated industry stooges to advisory panels, releasing justifications for cutting climate rules that fail a laugh test on the first reading, and calling for a moon base to boost its political fortunes, and so on. I see too little of this, not too much.

    There is a general rule of thumb in life as a reporter. Whenever anyone says “The media…” or “The press …” or “Journalists …” they are talking out of their fundamental orifice, disgorging some personal bone stuck in their craw. The arguments made here could have been sharpened to break this rule, but instead remain undigested.

    I take the point but I also think this essay misses the point. Trump repeatedly lies and make assertions without evidence and maintains there are alternative facts and uses words as if they were meaningless tokens and disrespects expertise. All of this is an attack on science and a very fundmanetal one that will damage science long after he is gone.

Comments are closed.


& Tipsters

Corruption in science?
Academic discrimination?
Research censorship?
Government cover-ups?

Undark wants to hear about it.

Email us at tips@undark.org, or visit our contact page for more secure options.