One of my mentors, Admiral David Titley, once said, “The ice doesn’t care whether you are Democrat or Republican, it just melts.” He was making the point that while people frame climate change as a political issue, it really isn’t one. Even with its uncertainties, the consensus science is pretty clear. The politics and fear are rooted more in solutions and inequities associated with climate disasters. During the Trump Administration, there was a general feeling that science was under attack and being undermined even as dedicated scientists forged onward. Whether climate science, COVID-19, or the environment, a “fog” hung over the science community. However, there seems to be a new optimism with the inauguration of President Biden. Here are three reasons why.
The elevation (and restoration) of science within the Biden Administration is one of the most immediate reasons for optimism. Geneticist Eric Lander was named the President’s Science Adviser and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). This position was vacant for a year and half at the beginning of the Trump Administration and was eventually filled by Kelvin Droegemeier. Biden also announced that Lander would be a part of his cabinet, which is an unprecedented and huge for science.
Another reason for optimism is the feeling of freedom. Freedom is a basic tenet and expectation of our great country. It was also something that many of my ancestors aspired to during the era of slavery. It is ironic and sad that I am speaking about it from the perspective of science. In a post-inauguration White House briefing Anthony Fauci articulated this point better than I can write it. The nation’s top infectious disease and COVID-19 expert told reporters, “The idea that you can get up here and talk about what you know, what the evidence, what the science is, and know that’s it — let the science speak. It is somewhat of a liberating feeling.”
I recently shared with my wife how much I admire Dr. Fauci because he “took one for the collective team, us.” The previous administration was rather loose with coronavirus science at times, according to many experts, and floated questionable advice about hydroxychloroquine and household cleaning materials. At times, Dr. Fauci was even removed from the public eye as the virus raged during the summer of 2020. Even with this adversity, Dr. Fauci endured. He seemed to recognize a greater mission. I truly believe history will capture his selflessness and patriotism appropriately.
Dr. Fauci also said during that White House briefing, “I can tell you, I take no pleasure at all in being in a situation of contradicting the president, so it was really something that you didn’t feel that you could actually say something and there wouldn’t be any repercussions about it.” That’s fear. I have spoken with many colleagues who are optimistic that the veil of fear, retaliation, and contradiction is gone. Others felt this fear too. In 2019, The Guardian published a revealing and disturbing story about six scientists who say they were silenced or bullied by the previous Administration. These scientists worked at the EPA, National Park Service (NPS), and the Department of Interior.
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Near the end of the Trump Administration, many experts questioned a couple of late term appointments at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The Washington Post reported that these appointments were likely intended to disrupt the forthcoming National Climate Assessment (NCA) report. If that was the plan, it failed because the Biden Administration is now calling the shots, and the publication of the so-called “Climate Change Flyers.”
Things were so bad for scientists that “alternative” science agency social media sites emerged. According to CNN, the @AltNatParkSer site emerged after the Administration ordered them to stop posting because they shared photos comparing the Obama and Trump Administration crowd sizes, respectively. The Alternative National Park Service gained thousands of followers, and over fifty alternative sites like it sprang up. For example, the @AltNOAA or Alternative NOAA Twitter profile states that it is, “The unofficial persistence team of the NOAA. Account not tax payer subsidized. NOAA studies the oceans, and atmosphere to understand our planet.”
As a scientist, I feel the same effervescence that Dr. Fauci now exudes even as the pandemic rages. COVID-19 is a dire problem and nothing to celebrate. However, the refreshing optimism is not necessarily rooted in the change in political ideology. Science has prospered when either side of the aisle is in the White House. Scientists just want to do our jobs and help the nation. Science is not the enemy. If you rely on a smartphone, GPS, medication, weather forecasts, or air travel, then you should thank science.
I remember when the movie “The Day After Tomorrow” was released. I was a young scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center at the time and one of the experts often asked to speak to the media on Earth science-related topics. Initially, we were ordered not to speak to the media about the movie. Andy Revkin established the context when he wrote in The New York Times, “But the prospect that moviegoers will be alarmed enough to blame the Bush administration for inattention to climate change has stirred alarm at the space agency, scientists there say.” NASA ultimately relaxed that stance. There were no “alternative Twitter handles” then, but apparently a simple sharing of an email to Revkin by an “unnamed” senior NASA scientist did the trick.