A year of science under Trump

We survived a year of regressive policies hurting science, scientists and their ability to promote human well-being.

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    Marchers advance towards City Hall during the March for Science Los Angeles in Los Angeles on April 22, 2017 [Reuters/Kyle Grillot]
    Marchers advance towards City Hall during the March for Science Los Angeles in Los Angeles on April 22, 2017 [Reuters/Kyle Grillot]

    Somehow, some way, we have made it to the end of 2017.

    And what a long year it's been.

    Looking back, it is almost unbelievable how much damage the Trump administration has done since the inauguration. From straining international relations to enriching corporations at the expense of poor Americans, the policies the president has championed have impacted every aspect of society.

    The scientific community is no exception, as scientists have felt the repercussions of foreign, fiscal, and other policies in their work and lives.

    For starters, health and science departments and programmes took a significant financial hit, notably through steep budget cuts like the $12.6bn cut to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), a 16.2 percent decrease from 2017. The impact on healthcare services could be tragic, as HHS is tasked with administering Medicare, Medicaid, and enforcing the provisions under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

    Some $5.8bn of the HHS budget cut is taken from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funds vital biomedical research at universities and medical facilities across the US, as well as at foreign research institutions. This will hamper scientists' ability to continue research, much of which is necessary for protecting human health.

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    At a time when antibiotic resistance is increasing, and climate change is expanding areas of the globe where tropical diseases are endemic, decreasing federal funding for scientific research will only make us more vulnerable to diseases that we cannot treat.

    Medical researchers and healthcare professionals were not the only ones to see budget cuts; environmental and climate scientists are arguably faring far worse.

    The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for example, faced a proposed $2.5bn cut (31 percent of its budget). Instead, Congress voted for a decrease $528m. Though this cut is less severe, important programmes for conducting toxicity research and setting water and air pollution standards will be eliminated, and the EPA's ability to enforce environmental standards will be constrained. All of this is a recipe for a public health disaster.

    Elsewhere, initiatives such as the Water and Wastewater loan and the grant programme of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) as well as climate change and clean energy-related programmes have completely lost funding.

    These budget cuts are but the tip of the (melting) iceberg. Federal programmes and agencies tasked with protecting the environment and natural resources have been targeted since the beginning of Trump's presidency, starting with an order to the EPA to remove its climate change page.

    In January, employees at the EPA and USDA were reportedly banned from providing the public updates via press releases or social media without prior screening and approval. More recently, staff at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention were advised against using seven words, such as "transgender" and "science-based". Reports are unclear whether this was an outright ban or merely a suggestion for avoiding overtly "political" language, but concerns about censorship have arisen anew.

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    Scientists have swiftly responded to these gag orders and censorship attempts by creating "alt" Twitter accounts for various agencies, writing an open letter to the president on climate change, and organising the March for Science. And when the threat of climate change data being scrubbed from government websites loomed, scientists rallied to preserve this critical information, which is now found at Data Refuge.

    Any national and international efforts to safeguard natural resources and curb climate change have been thwarted by this administration. In the past year, Trump has reversed former President Barack Obama's decision to halt construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, planned to scrap a ban on uranium mining near the Grand Canyon, decreased the size of national parks, and withdrew from the Paris Agreement.

    The consequences of these policies are not trivial, as we saw in November when the Keystone pipeline leaked 795,000 litres of oil in South Dakota.

    Importantly, we are seeing the effects of climate change today, most notably in the increased frequency and severity of hurricanes this year alone. Hurricane Harvey resulted in an estimated $198bn in property damage, with thousands of Houston residents still displaced months later.

    The extensive devastation left in Hurricane Maria's wake has included an increasing death toll in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, as the islands remain without electricity and suffer limited access to needed medical supplies.

    Scientists were also inevitably affected by Trump's harmful social policies. In the past year, we saw how the infamous "Muslim ban" blocked scientists from entering the country and undoubtedly discouraged many more from considering educational and career opportunities such as medical residency in the US.

    A Congress plan to tax graduate students' tuition waivers would have effectively forced poor and underrepresented minorities out of school, many of whom are currently in STEM fields. The financial repercussions of the new tax law and this administration's persistent attempts to repeal the ACA will take a toll on academics struggling with educational debt, on researchers with disabilities or chronic illnesses, and on families who depend on graduate school stipends or grant funding.

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    For many, 2017 was a year of disbelief - disbelief in how a country that has produced many scientific breakthroughs and new technologies is now clamping down on science, scientists and their ability to promote human wellbeing.

    But for those of us who were keenly aware of the threat that a Trump presidency would pose to our day-to-day lives, the devastation of this year was unsurprising. We knew that Trump made promises to the Republican Party base that threatened our health and safety. 

    For researchers whose race, religion, or disability was mocked by Trump during his candidacy, the threat of losing funding for research that protects human life was hardly shocking. We saw how little he valued our lives on the campaign trail. 

    And for scientists who come from marginalised communities and live in neighbourhoods that have been destroyed by policies favouring the rich, the removal of environmental protections was not unexpected. We saw how business and profit drive Trump and the Republican Party, even at the expense of the planet that sustains us. 

    The evidence for the horrors of this administration has always been there; perhaps the scientific community ignored the "data" of the 2016 election to reassure ourselves that 2017 might not be so terrible.

    We can no longer do this in 2018. As we enter the new year, let us resolve to fight, not simply against whatever threats Trump and the Republican Party may pose, but also for a clean earth and a safe and health society.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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