Foreign researchers and analysts weigh in on the importance of free information — and the historical dangers of politicizing data.
By Bob Berwyn
Climate protesters hold a banner reading during a demonstration on September 21st, 2014, at Place de la République in Paris. (Photo: François Guillot/AFP/Getty Images)
European scientists are reacting with dismay to partial and planned crackdowns on United States government science agencies, which are part of a larger global community that transcends political borders.
Under the Paris Agreement, international scientists forged a strong evidence-based platform for climate action, which faces an uncertain future under the Trump administration. Now, this global coalition of scientists is expressing solidarity with their American colleagues who appear to have launched a subversive social media guerrilla movement against censorship.
Pacific Standard asked several European researchers to comment on American scientists’ activism on social media, and about the likely results of the Trump administration’s nascent war on science.
Karsten Haustein, Climate Researcher, Oxford University, United Kingdom
These are interesting and certainly creative efforts to deal with a potential communication crisis due to government intervention (ironically from a government that opposes any sort of government intervention at all costs). … [Prime ministers of] Canada [Stephen Harper] and Australia [Tony Abbott] set some really unpleasant precedents when it comes to climate censorship, and you can bet it does have an effect on people’s outreach efforts if such measures are in place. How can it not?
Now with [Donald] Trump in the White House, showing no signs to be willing to make concessions, scientists realize that the worst-case scenario is not a mere fantasy.
As a European scientist, I will firmly stand behind my U.S. colleagues (many of whom we collaborate with anyway) and defend their right of free speech as much as my own. We should all be really worried and concerned (job security is certainly one of those concerns), but we must not give in.
Stefan Rahmstorf, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts Research, Germany
“Publicly funded science, as conducted by government agencies, plays a critical role in society as a source of trusted and impartial information committed to the public good rather than serving any particular commercial interest. The people pay for public science. They have a right to hear what the scientists are finding out and what they think, unfiltered by those in power and whether they like it or not. That is a hallmark of a free and open society.”
Joseph Cook, Climate Researcher, University of Sheffield, United Kingdom
It is very troubling that U.S. scientists are having to resort to back-channels for science communication. Now, more than any other time in history, humans have the power to fundamentally alter the way the planet functions, so it is increasingly important that we make well-informed decisions about how we manage our impact. We can only do that when real science is conducted and communicated freely.
Kevin Cowtan, Climate Researcher, University of York, United Kingdom
Yes, this initially looks like the [Stephen] Harper administration again, but more aggressive. However, I think there’s also a concern that this actually goes much deeper. If you link what is going on with the federal science websites and the whole inauguration crowd debacle, it looks like the new administration thinks they can control access to simple facts in a way we never saw with the Harper administration. That goes beyond science — you need to talk to political scientists and historians about that.
We are, of course, concerned that some of our data sources will get shut down. The new administration can’t shut down the weather satellites without crippling weather forecasting, although there are other important instruments like GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) they might eliminate. But they could try and shut down some of the historical temperature records. Fortunately, I think we can move most of that outside the U.S. fairly easily. If I had the time, I’d like to package the NASA and NOAA temperature record software so anyone could run it on their laptop.
The other concern is collaborations. It’s quite possible that the new administration could gag federal scientists, at least from communicating to the public, or even vetting their papers. Previously we’ve seen cases where overseas authors have done the press releases on a paper to avoid gagging rules. I guess the worry is that to stop that, the new administration might forbid collaborations altogether. There’s also the concern that if we include a federal scientist on a paper, the administration may be able to veto publication.
Alistair Jump, Plant Ecologist, University of Stirling, United Kingdom
Of course, I get my understanding of what is going on in the USA through our regular media and social media — so I have been following the issues with unfolding horror — though I am sure that I don’t have the full understanding of what is “normal” for changes in administrations in the U.S. However, for me it is deeply troubling that a nation that styles itself as the leader of the free world would seek to suppress communication of science to the public. There can be no real motivation for this other than to control information flow, so that the evidence suits the message, rather than the other way around.
This approach is dangerous in every respect, since it warps understanding, fosters distrust, and politicizes even the access to basic evidence. By suppressing communication, you imply that there is something to hide, and that you wish to present an alternative version of what’s really happening. Free and easy access to evidence and genuine scientific findings is democratic and enabling; suppressing such access is precisely the opposite. So much for freedom of speech.
I thank each and every American scientist involved in the rogue and alternative social-media accounts; these folks give me hope, and they should give us all hope. Science is the instrument of progress and our future depends on it. Bypassing the censors and getting the evidence out there is in all of our interests because we need to come together across countries and continents to solve the major environmental challenges that we face. The short-termism of those who seek to censor science is staggering — ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away — they just get worse the longer they remain unaddressed — and it’s our kids who’ll pay.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.