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Politics

Scientists fear they've only seen tip of the Trump iceberg

Climate, other experts steel for fight as nascent policies fly in face of facts

WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump's policies are unnerving a U.S. scientific community that has long been a source of national pride and power. In some fields, researchers are merely skeptical; in others, they are downright dismayed.

Trump's inaugural address on Jan. 20 included a surprising vow to "unlock the mysteries of space." A proposal made last October by a senior aide suggested positioning "exploration and science" as the core of space policy, with a goal of sending humans to all planets in our solar system by the end of this century. 

That is big talk when you consider that studies on manned missions have yet to look farther than Mars. And given Trump's promises to curb profligate spending, few expect a significant boost in outlays on space development.

Meanwhile, the life sciences could bear the brunt of Trump's efforts to make a clean break from his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Scientists worry that research on cancer, stem cells and other previous priorities will wind up on the chopping block. Obama's vice president, Joe Biden, was pushing cancer studies, hoping to achieve breakthroughs on immune and other therapies. New Vice President Mike Pence, a conservative Christian, opposes studies on embryonic stem cells derived from fertilized eggs.

The Trump administration also intends to set up a panel to examine the safety of vaccines. Reportedly, the committee will be chaired by a lawyer who supports the highly contentious theory that vaccinating children increases the risk of autism.

The Lancet, a leading medical journal, published a paper on the theory in 1998 but later retracted it, partly due to the discovery of fraudulent research. 

The World Health Organization denies any relationship between vaccinations and autism, citing large-scale research in various countries. A survey of 100,000 children in the U.S. found no indication that vaccines increase the danger. Yet, depending on the Trump panel's conclusions, the U.S. could see a decrease in the number of kids who get vaccinated before entering school.

The British science magazine Nature has warned that Trump's stance on vaccines could bring a revival of certain infectious diseases.

The heat is on

Climate science is yet another field in which researchers are reeling.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture last Monday told researchers and staffers at affiliated institutes to refrain from disclosing information on studies concerning the effects of climate change, for the time being. This includes everything from reports on achievements to photos and reference materials.

The National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency and other government organs have issued similar directives.

The administration ordered the EPA to temporarily halt the provision of subsidies for climate change and other studies, and to freeze contracts for research on subjects such as air and water quality. The EPA will be allowed to release its research results only after they are reviewed by political appointees.

Telephones in the EPA's public relations office are going straight to voicemail, leaving the media in the dark.

The Trump administration has also instructed the Department of Energy to submit a list of officials and researchers involved in efforts to fight global warming. This is spreading fear that being listed will damage careers, or even force some officials to quit.

America's science and technology policy changes whenever a new administration takes office, and there are bound to be some hiccups. But it is Team Trump's habit of disregarding inconvenient data, while playing fast and loose with other numbers, that really has scientists worried. This includes the spat with the press over the inauguration crowd size, along with unverified claims of widespread voter fraud.

"I think sometimes we can disagree with the facts" reported by the media, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said during one news conference.

Researchers gathered at the University of California, Los Angeles, on Jan. 20 to copy data on climate change and other issues from government websites, fearing the Trump administration would soon delete it. In fact, some documents on global warming and other matters have already been wiped from the White House website.

Taking a stand

Following the Women's March on Washington on Jan. 21 -- the biggest protest rally since the days of the Vietnam War -- scientists across the U.S. are planning their own march. 

Kenneth Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that while the Trump administration may try to silence researchers, it cannot overrule climate change nor the laws of physics. 

The scientific community will surely put up a fight. But if the administration does not hesitate to ignore or fabricate data, logical arguments can only accomplish so much. It appears we are entering an era in which inconvenient facts are simply treated as nonexistent.

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