Access features, news and views from the latest issue and from our chemistry archives.

May 2017

13769: Trump’s Order and the threat to scientific exchange

By Brittany Howard

The US Presidential Order imposing travel restrictions is of deep concern to the international scientific community.

Many expressions of concern emerged from the scientific community in the wake of Presidential Executive Order 13769, ‘Protecting the Nation from Terrorist Entry into the United States’, signed by President Donald J. Trump on 27 January 2017. Among them was a statement on 3 February issued by the American Chemical Society, discussing the ‘chilling effect this order may potentially have on the freedom of scientific exchange among scientists and students worldwide’. RACI President Peter Junk has stated that ‘RACI, as a scientific community, supports the ACS’s view that scientists should be able to operate without restrictions to travel to enable continuing collaboration, attend scientific conferences and meetings and interact openly with other nations.’

As a result of the Order, severe travel restrictions were imposed on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries – Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. Allegedly, there was little or no consultation with the Department of Homeland Security in respect of preparing drafts, publication and signing of the Order. It is, therefore, perhaps of little wonder that the Order resulted in mass confusion across US borders, with the relevant authorities themselves appearing confounded as to its actual implementation.

The Order was shortly thereafter blocked by the 9th Circuit Federal Appeals Court. However, this relief was only temporary. A revised Order was unveiled on 6 March, and is set to be effective from 16 March. The revised Order has removed Iraq from the list of countries to which the travel restrictions apply. Several states (including Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, Minnesota and New York) have since challenged the revised Order by filing suits to federal judges (bit.ly/2nbsl7p).

Following the rollout of the initial Order, the international scientific community rallied to support those immediately affected by the travel restrictions. The European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO) formed the Science Solidarity List, which assisted scientists outside of the US to offer assistance to those US-based scientists temporarily stranded abroad. As at 24 February, more than 1000 offers of assistance had come from far and wide, including many from Australia, offering desk space and lab benches, internet and library access, accommodation and even ‘a warm welcome’ (bit.ly/2len6Gz).

Editors of the British Medical Journal responded to the travel restrictions by publishing an article that stressed that President Trump’s immigration policies could ‘disrupt the flow of scientific ideas and knowledge’. Further, the authors stated that they were concerned that the administration was ‘acting in ways that will suppress research and limit communication on scientific topics that it deems politically inconvenient’. Undoubtedly, the travel restrictions will also hinder the recruitment of talented scientists to American institutions (bit.ly/2ltisQj).

Prior to the Presidential Executive Order, Forbes published ‘An Open Letter to President Trump From 500 Women Scientists’, which in hindsight pre-empted many of these exact issues that have since come to the fore under the Trump administration. The penned letter stated that ‘science progress is built on diversity and innovation and only works when we encourage openness and contribution from everyone – scientists of different genders, races, classes, creeds, cultures, and perspectives. Encouraging such inclusivity ensures that scientific research is critically evaluated from every angle’ (bit.ly/2maD57P).

The sentiment put forward in the open letter may perhaps be attributed to President Trump’s overarching attitude towards science – at least as it has been conveyed by the media – in which he appears to show a general misunderstanding. President Trump, himself, has previously been reported as propagating the myth that vaccines cause autism and has used his Twitter platform to deny the existence of climate change. In perhaps what has been the most telling sign, the topic of science did not once feature in President Trump’s inaugural address. In contrast, scientists hold fond memories of Barack Obama’s pledge in 2009 to ‘restore science to its rightful place’.

At the time of writing, President Trump was yet to appoint a scientific advisor, a position that carries the more formal title of the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The level of stature and access that is afforded to the position is at the full discretion of President Trump. The scientific advisor bears the key role of consulting with scientists both internal and external to the government, to ensure the President is being provided with the best available information – scientific facts – for making key decisions on any science-related policy.

The White House has not provided any indication of who may be appointed to the role of scientific advisor; however, rumours circulating Capitol Hill would lead us to believe that several controversial candidates are in the running. One such scientist is William Happer, a Princeton University physicist, immigrant and registered Democrat, who has previously stated that he does not agree with ‘all the hysteria about climate change’. Also rumoured to be in the running is Yale University computer scientist David Gelernter, who has also denied the existence of climate change. Either of these scientists would seem to be a good fit with the Trump administration, given President Trump has previously alleged that climate change is nothing more than a Chinese hoax created to damage US manufacturing (http://theatln.tc/2lVcmLW).

In late January, the media reported that the Trump administration had enforced blanket bans on government scientists of at least the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Interior Department, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services.

The Trump administration moved swiftly to block the EPA from issuing grants and contracts to study environmental issues. In addition, any EPA studies that are conducted must be reviewed and approved by White House officials before they are released. It is understood that the restrictions also include a temporary blackout on media releases and social media activity. Doug Ericksen, the Communications Director for the Trump transition team at the EPA, has stated that the blackout extends to content on the EPA website, including details of scientific evidence showing that the Earth’s climate is warming, and that anthropogenic carbon emissions are to blame (bit.ly/2mfBDBK).

Similarly, scientists at the US Department of Agriculture were allegedly banned from releasing any ‘public-facing documents’, and comparable restrictions are believed to have been forced upon the Department of Health and Human Services (http://ti.me/2ltgSxP).

The restrictions are viewed by many as an attempt to muzzle scientists, and a means to prevent critical research and scientific facts from being disseminated to the public. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has responded to the restrictions by warning against censorship and intimidation, issuing a statement by Chief Executive, Rush Holt Jr, that ‘As the AAAS Council stated in 2006, censorship, intimidation, or other restriction on the freedom of scientists employed or funded by government organisations to communicate their unclassified scientific findings and assessments not only to each other but also to policymakers and to the public is inimical to the advance of science and its appropriate application in the policy domain’. The US Director of the World Resources Institute also called for the restrictions to be lifted, and stated that ‘these actions will stem the free flow of information and have a chilling effect on staff in these agencies … The administration should lift these bans as soon as possible and ensure that the role of science is respected within our government agencies’ (http://ind.pn/2lY4VSx).

The flow of scientific information from government research institutes and organisations to the media and general public has varied between recent presidencies. For example, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama adopted more expansive definitions of freedom of information. In contrast, George W. Bush sought to restrict it. Most recently, the EPA enacted a scientific integrity document during the Obama administration, which detailed that scientific studies were to be conducted and reviewed by the agency, and that the studies should eventually be communicated to the public ‘uncompromised by political or other interference’ (http://ti.me/2mGP3Ee). It seems the scientific integrity document is of little assistance under the Trump administration. In fact, President Trump’s restrictions on scientific authorities fly in the face of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – one’s right to freedom of speech.

However, the imposition of such restrictions is not an unprecedented act. Remarkably, Canadian scientists have only recently had such restrictions lifted following the commencement of the Trudeau government. Previously, former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who was in office from 2006 to 2015, prevented government scientists from speaking with media and discussing their research. The focus of the Harper restrictions was in relation to information that highlighted undesirable consequences of industrial development, including climate change. The government policies saw Canadian scientists don their white lab coats and march in protest. A mock funeral procession was held in the streets to mourn the ‘death of scientific evidence’, and included eulogies that took aim at the years of escalating hostility between Canadian scientists and the Canadian government. It was in these protests that the catchphrase ‘no science, no evidence, no truth, no democracy’ was coined. The Harper government also eliminated the position of National Science Advisor.

The Harper restrictions were extraordinarily effective in restricting the dissemination of research and its outcomes to the public. A 2013 survey reported that a quarter of Canadian government scientists had been asked to exclude or alter scientific information for non-scientific reasons, and 90% considered they were not able to discuss their research freely with the media. A leaked internal Environment Canada document revealed that the restrictions had reduced the department’s engagement with media on climate change by a staggering 80%. The Trudeau government has since lifted the restrictions, and last year Canadian scientists, with the support of their union, worked to ensure their contracts would permanently enshrine their right to discuss their research with the media and public (bit.ly/2ltisQj).

When it comes to the dissemination of research and innovation to the public, the patent system is one of the oldest and most successful means for doing so. Most certainly, the primary premise of the patent system is to reward inventors through the grant of an exclusive monopoly in exchange for disclosing the invention to the community in the form of a published patent document. As of yet, the Trump administration is yet to release any policy papers or give any indication of what is in store for the current US patent system, and the intellectual property regimes in general. In any event, any changes implemented by President Trump must strike the delicate balance of affording commensurate intellectual property rights to an inventor. If the afforded rights are considered too weak, the incentive to seek patent protection will be lacking, resulting in the invention not being published and therefore not disclosed to the public.

Much of what will eventuate from the Trump administration remains to be seen. Many consider that the restrictions have had severe implications on scientific collaborations, including preventing travel between collaborating research groups and to international conferences to present findings, and have prevented many talented scientists from entering the US. Undoubtedly, it is in the best interests of everyone, including President Trump himself, that he and his administration are armed with scientific facts.


Brittany Howard MRACI completed a PhD in medicinal chemistry at the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences before undertaking a postdoctoral position with the National Institutes of Health (US). She is currently a patent attorney with FB Rice Patent and Trade Mark Attorneys.

iStockphoto/doomko
USDA/CCA-2.0

AAAS Chief Executive Rush Holt Jr (pictured here with school children in his district and USDA administrator Pat Dombroski) was a professor of physics and public policy before serving as a US Senator in the Democratic Party.

Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0

President Trump speaking about his immigration policy in Phoenix, Arizona, on 31 August 2016.

The Science Solidarity List: 1000 and counting

  • ‘Desk space, lab space, internet access, help with housing.’ (Australia)
  •  
  • ‘Cancer Research lab, desk space, computer access, friendly environment.’ (Spain)
  •  
  • ‘Bench space, internet access and science chat without boundaries. RNA biology.’ (England)
  •  
  • ‘Organic chemist here, I could potentially offer temporary accommodation and internet access.’ (UK)
  •  
  • ‘Laboratory bench, desk, help with housing and visa and staying permit issues, access to laboratory equipment including mass spectrometry for up to 1–2 people.’ (Italy)

 

The sentiment put forward in the open letter may perhaps be attributed to President Trump’s overarching attitude towards science – at least as it has been conveyed by the media – in which he appears to show a general misunderstanding.
The restrictions are viewed by many as an attempt to muzzle scientists, and a means to prevent critical research and hard facts from being disseminated to the public.

Trump administration moves to muzzle scientists, block research

 Coolcaesa/CC BY-SA 3.0

Headquarters of the US EPA in Washington, DC. Hundreds rallied in February near the agency's Chicago headquarters to protest President Trump's nomination of Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma's attorney-general, as department head. 

WASHINGTON (24 January 2017) – It’s the first full week of President Trump’s administration and attacks on science are already underway. In a memo to Environmental Protection Agency staff, the Trump transition team ordered a freeze on grants and contracts and imposed new restrictions on EPA scientists. At the US Department of Agriculture, scientists at the agency’s main research arm have been barred from any public communication about their work. This undermines vital public health and environmental protections, erodes public trust and violates the basic principles of science, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

Below is a statement by Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS.

‘These actions don’t just threaten scientists – they threaten everyone in the country who breathes air, drinks water and eats food. These agency scientists carry out research in support of policies that protect our health and safety and help farmers, and it makes no sense to put up walls between them and the public, or unilaterally halt the work they do.

 ‘Both the EPA and the USDA have developed scientific integrity policies that, among other things, protect scientists’ right to speak out about their work. The American people deserve to know the results of taxpayer-funded research.

‘Halting the EPA’s grants and contracts is equally short-sighted and destructive. As we saw in past government shutdowns, you can’t just turn scientific research on and off like a switch. We know that scientists can lose years of work, businesses can see investments lost and communities can be deprived of information they need to make good decisions. EPA grants and contracts include efforts like water safety testing and hazardous waste disposal – work that you can’t just walk away from without exposing communities to preventable risks.

‘If you care about clean air, clean water and policies that actually protect people, you need the best independent science – and actions like this make it harder for Americans to benefit from science. That the administration has moved so quickly to clamp down on scientists shows that the Trump administration is more focused on lifting rules on polluters than keeping our air and water clean.

‘The scientific community is ready to fight back against any efforts to marginalise or suppress science and undermine science-based policies and research people depend on. More than 5500 scientists have come together to say that President Trump must respect the role of science. These actions are the clearest sign yet that he isn’t living up to that standard.’

Union of Concerned Scientists

Book and software reviews

To offer your services as a book or software reviewer for Chemistry in Australia, please contact Damien Blackwell at damo34@internode.on.net