Donald Trump speaking at a campaign rally in Arizona in 2016, prior to being elected president.

Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Would you advise Trump on science? Survey examines attitudes of U.S. researchers

The policies of President Donald Trump have soured U.S. scientists on working with the federal government and his administration. At least that’s the conventional wisdom.

However, an informal survey by Science of 66 prominent scientists and engineers suggests a more nuanced reaction to Trump’s first year in office. Half say they would seriously weigh an offer to serve in the administration as an appointed or Senate-confirmed official, and 80% say they would consider serving on a high-level panel advising the president or a federal agency. Almost 10% are current members of such panels.

“You need to be at the table, otherwise you are on the table,” says Charles Rice, a soil scientist at Kansas State University in Manhattan who labels himself a moderate Republican. “Just ignoring [the administration] would not help the scientific community,” says Rice, who is chair of the agriculture board at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), an independent body that conducts government-funded studies.

Step up, or step away?

Science is not aware of comparable data on the community’s attitude toward service in previous administrations. But this survey suggests that a long track record of offering scientific advice to the government, regardless of party affiliation, is now threatened by the absence of any ties to the Trump White House, which has been slow to fill numerous key science positions.

“I’m not at all sure how one communicates with this administration,” confesses Jacqueline Hewitt, director of the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Hewitt, who says she’s “a Democrat willing to listen to Republicans,” is struggling to figure out a way to do that. “Get [Office of Science and Technology Policy] positions filled? Invite administration officials to [NASEM] events?”

To be sure, many survey respondents expressed more serious reservations about pursuing any type of engagement. “I had no difficulties with prior Republican administrations because I believed that despite our policy differences, I had faith in their fundamental integrity and commitment to scientific inquiry,” says Shirley Tilghman, a molecular biologist and president emeritus of Princeton University. “I do not have the same confidence in the Trump administration,” says Tilghman, a Democrat.

Arden Bement, a Republican who was director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Science Foundation under former President George W. Bush, is one of several respondents who said now is not the time to pull away. “It’s critical that scientists work with [the White House] in setting priorities for the president’s science budget and providing advice,” he says.

But Bement also understands why many scientists might hesitate. “Unfortunately, providing science advice to a president who resists advice, would not understand it, or would distort it for personal and political reasons would be futile and frustrating,” says Bement, now a professor emeritus of nuclear engineering at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Some scientists say they are offended by the behavior of Trump and his top aides. “There was a time when people were embarrassed to lie on national television,” says one academic who requested anonymity and self-identified as an independent.. “It erodes American competitiveness to have an administration that propagates misinformation and whose policies are not fact-based.”

But other respondents warned that such hostile feelings could blind scientists to important political realities. “If we accuse the current administration of being antiscience, and extend that to Republicans in general, we may undermine natural champions of science who happen to be Republican,” says Thomas Mason, who stepped down early this year as director of Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and joined Battelle, a nonprofit based in Columbus that manages ORNL for the Department of Energy (DOE). “It also plays into the hands of those who say ‘scientists cannot be trusted’ on a topic like climate change because they are really just expressing their political views,” says Mason, a condensed matter physicist who labels himself an independent.

It’s very important that the community step up their interaction with the authorization and appropriation committees of both the House [of Representatives] and Senate, not just focus on the executive branch.

Cherry Murray, Harvard University

Who we asked

The survey, conducted last month, was sent to an unscientific sample of scientists and engineers who, over several decades, have played a role in shaping U.S. research policy. About two-thirds hold academic positions, with the rest hailing from industry, government laboratories, or nonprofit research institutions. Half call themselves Democrats, with about 10% identifying as Republicans and 40% choosing the label independent. Nearly one-quarter are women, and slightly less than 10% are from groups traditionally underrepresented in science.

Roughly two-thirds—45 of 66—of those contacted completed the four-question survey. It asked whether they would consider serving on a high-level advisory panel or working directly for Trump, as well as their political affiliation and how they think the community should interact with the Trump administration. A few who declined said they do not answer any surveys, and one specifically mentioned working at a federal lab as a reason not to participate.

Only nine rejected the idea of serving on a high-level advisory committee, compared with 27 who said yes and four who said maybe. An additional five said they are already serving in such roles. Respondents were evenly divided about joining the administration: Whereas 22 said no, 14 said yes and nine said maybe.

We should stick to our guns … and provide thought-filled and informative information to the Trump administration and any government body that asks,

Thomas Coughlin, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers

Varying views on engagement

Although none praised the president’s policies or his vision for the country, several scientists said they have been encouraged by some of the president’s science-related appointments. “There’s hope,” says Paul Offit, an infectious diseases and vaccines researcher at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, citing the reappointment of Francis Collins as director of the National Institutes of Health and Trump’s selections of Scott Gottlieb to lead the Food and Drug Administration and Jerome Adams to be U.S. surgeon general. “The best way to work with this administration is through these appointees,” says Offit, who is a Democrat.

Engaging in such dialogue doesn’t require scientists to sacrifice their principles, says Thomas Coughlin, president-elect of the Washington, D.C.–based public policy arm of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. “We should stick to our guns … and provide thought-filled and informative information to the Trump administration and any government body that asks,” says Coughlin, a digital storage analyst who labels himself an independent. That interaction, he says, applies not just to the scientific method, but also politically charged topics such as evolution, “where there is a preponderance of data and science to support them.”

Bradley Peterson, who chairs the science committee for the advisory council to the NASA administrator, is even more direct about the role that scientists need to play in dealing with the Trump administration. “Call them out on every factually incorrect statement, and resist attempts to disregard or downplay the role of science in society,” says Peterson, a professor emeritus of astronomy at The Ohio State University in Columbus who labels himself a Democrat/independent.

In contrast, several respondents feel that individual scientists stand little chance of shaping the president’s core values or the views of senior members of his administration and, thus, believe their efforts would be for naught. “Honestly, [scientists] shouldn’t engage” with this administration, says one industry scientist, an independent who requested anonymity. “The environment is too politically charged, and it’s a no-win situation.” Instead, he says, “the U.S. science community should spend its time educating the public on [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] issues.”

I could not work for this administration, but I understand why people do.

Gigi Gronvall, Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security

The right audience

Cherry Murray, a Democrat who led DOE’s Office of Science during the Obama administration, was one of several scientists who noted that the executive branch isn’t the only game in town. “It’s very important that the community step up their interaction with the authorization and appropriation committees of both the House [of Representatives] and Senate, not just focus on the executive branch,” says Murray, an applied physicist at Harvard University who has agreed to serve on a panel advising the National Nuclear Security Administration within DOE.

Self-interest can be a powerful motivation in any interaction with politicians, says David Galas, a molecular biologist at the Pacific Northwest Research Institute in Seattle, Washington. “Convincing the apparently antiscientific that they are wrong by intellectual argument has vanishing likelihood of success,” says Galas, a former DOE official who calls himself a Democrat. “But finding ways to convince them that it is in their own self-interest” to work with scientists to improve the nation’s economy, security, and public health, he adds, “can provide a wedge that can open minds.”

Scientists who choose to engage need to keep their expectations low, says Gigi Gronvall, an immunologist at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Health Security in Baltimore, Maryland, who advised the Obama administration on health security issues. “I think they should try to get the wins they can. There will be plenty of times that they won’t” succeed, Gronvall, a Democrat, says. “I could not work for this administration, but I understand why people do,” she adds.

One scientist said she’s willing to advise the Trump administration but that its policies have blocked her participation. “I understand from news reports that I will be, or have been, removed from” an advisory committee to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), says Catherine Kling, because EPA is funding her research on valuing improvements in water quality. Klingis an economist at Iowa State University in Ames who calls herself a Democrat/independent. Kling is referring to statements from EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt that such funding will now disqualify scientists from serving on such panels.

Kling is still awaiting word from EPA on her status. “Would I have served? Yes. EPA’s mission is important, and I can support that mission by providing it with best possible economic advice,” she says.

Robert Dynes, a former chancellor of the University of California (UC), San Diego, and former president of the UC system, speculates that some Trump officials won’t interact with scientists out of fear that they’ll be branded disloyal to the president. “There are a few thoughtful people in the Trump Cabinet, and if they asked, the scientific community would respond with enthusiasm,” says Dynes, a physicist who considers himself an independent. “The problem is, if they did so, most of us believe they would be subject to reprisals.”

M. Roy Wilson, president of Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, and board chair of the Association of American Medical Colleges, offers a simple formula for constructive interaction with the Trump administration. “Stay fact-based, and stay away from politics,” says Wilson, who calls himself an independent. “Stand firm on what is known from evidence. There’s nothing to be gained by disengaging.”