Trump arrives. Also, we hope, the pushback

It goes without saying that the upcoming Trump administration is throwing up huge uncertainties over the future direction of the federal government’s science and technology policy. It’s also stirring people to action, which is overdue and highly welcome.

A new group called 314 Action is looking to change the level of science literacy in Congress and state and local governments, and thereby to influence policy making, by recruiting as many scientists as possible to run for office. Its concerns are that “the United States is falling further and further behind the rest of the world, that our political leaders continue to deny scientific facts and that Congress fails to fully fund scientific research so we can solve pressing environmental issues like climate change and social problems like gun violence.”

Meanwhile, scientists are organizing actions around saving what government data exists (a lot of it) on such things as global warming and climate change, in case the incoming administration decides to wall that off from public view or, as some suspect, delete it altogether. A long list of notables has also issued an open letter to the Trump team, suggesting things they should do on climate change.

Given what Trump has said already on the campaign trail, expect Climate Change denialism out of the White House, at the least. Rex Tillerson, ex-CEO of ExxonMobile and Secretary of State in waiting, threw a little mud into the mix by agreeing at his confirmation hearing that global warming was happening, but that no-one could say with any accuracy what the consequences of that will be.

While that’s not true — climate scientists have been able to say with pretty fair accuracy what some of the major repercussions will be, and projection models are getting ever better — the mere fact that he broke with the denialist trend might be seen to offer hope.

It’s as likely he was saying what was needed to get him through the hearing, and he’s apparently well-versed in this type of PR. Once he’s confirmed, the formal policy of the administration will be one of straight denial (covered by some mealy-mouthed diplomatic talk). With other fossil-friendly Trump appointments such as Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency and Rick Perry to head the Energy Department, it’s hard to see where the cracks in this approach will come from.

It’s not only climate that could suffer. If the Trump talk of directing NASA away from Earth observation and more towards outer space becomes reality, that will have major repercussions on many aspects of Earth science other than climate studies. I don’t expect that to happen — NASA has too many supporters in Congress on both sides of the aisle — but starving agencies of money for parts of its mission is a time-honored way for Congressional opponents to get their way. Health and medical research, energy sufficiency and other things are also on the block.

It’s a tough road for groups such as 314 Action, because scientists are famously leery of involving themselves in policy fights. There have been some notable scientist and engineering legislators in the past, and some outright champions of science in Congress. California Democrat George Brown, for example, in the early 1990s chaired what is now the House Science Committee, and over his long career helped to establish the first ever federal climate change research program, as well as the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the EPA and other important bodies.

That standard of pro-science lawmaker doesn’t exist now. Sadly, under his successor chairmen, ending up with the current and lamentable Lamar Smith, the House “Science” Committee has become nothing more than a mouthpiece for Republican anti-science views. It’s hard to find many pro-science — or even scientifically literate — people in Congress these days. Those that do exist don’t have much of a voice.

If 314 Action and others can change that, and in the timeframe they’re looking at, then all power to them. The Trump Administration will not have its way completely when it comes to science issues, not least because the gears of change grind very slowly in government, but it can cause major damage without some effective pushback. Maybe 314 Action will be the beginning of that.