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Scientists’ New Role in Trump’s America: The Resistance

Science was once considered to be largely apolitical, but a series of scientist-led projects have cropped up to oppose the Trump administration.

A coalition of university professors and scientists around the United States have taken on a new role in recent weeks: Defenders of facts and truth against the impending antiscience Trump administration.

As we reported soon after the election, scientists and professors who rely on government climate science to do their research are frantically downloading terabytes of publicly available data based on the fear that much of it could become difficult to access under Trump's presidency.

Last we checked in with a handful of these researchers, they were rushing to organize archive-a-thons, identify potentially vulnerable sites, and were figuring out how to best work together to preserve as much data as possible before Trump's inauguration. Now, a week from the start of the administration, members of the movement are beginning to reckon with their new status as resistance members.

"It's something I've been asked about and thought about a lot lately," Bethany Wiggin, director of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities, told me. "Man, if believing in facts is an act of resistance well then, so be it."

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There are several different archiving projects, many of them being run in partnership with the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI), a group founded as a direct response to Trump's election. The movement is informed by previous actions taken by conservative administrations in the US and Canada, as well as the antiscience rhetoric of Trump and his cabinet picks. The George W. Bush administration systematically changed scientists' press releases, misrepresented scientific findings to Congress, neglected or deleted information on government websites, and dismantled the Environmental Protection Agency's library system. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's administration deleted or changed climate information on the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources website, and former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper restricted government scientists' access to the press. Researchers expect to see similar measures under Trump.

"When government takes an active hand in framing science—an incoming chief executive who called climate change a 'Chinese hoax' and suggested that maybe vaccines do cause autism, a new EPA head who is a climate change denier, a key advisor who thinks that a president of the United States shouldn't be held accountable for what he actually says—it's troubling," Chris Labash, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University, told me.

"There is a sense of anticipation and foreboding that is both hanging over us and motivating us to be working as hard as we can"

Wiggin and her colleagues are organizing two archive-a-thons this weekend in Philadelphia. She says that the effort has brought the scientific community together, but said the project itself has been difficult and progress has at times been slow. Much of the data they're trying to save—NOAA's sea level rise calculator or the EPA's interactive pollution maps—is in databases that are hard to download and reproduce accurately.

"There are days where there's a sense of energy and hope that feels really good for a lot of people," she said. "Then there's also that feeling of, 'I direct an environmental humanities program. Why am I doing this?' There's that worry at 3 in the morning—can we actually do this?"

A 'Guerilla Archiving' event in Toronto. Image: Technoscience Research Unit

Though the archiving project feels most urgent with Trump's imminent inauguration, it's not the only scientifically led effort to oppose him. Shaughnessy Naughton, a chemist and breast cancer researcher who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in Pennsylvania last year, has formed 314 Action, a group that will teach scientists how to run for office and will support their campaigns. Meanwhile, thousands of scientists across the world are signing petitions and writing letters to Trump urging him to respect climate science findings, a notable act considering that traditionally, many scientists have felt they should stay out of politics.

Wiggin's lab is a part of EDGI along with about 50 professors from two dozen universities in both the United States and Canada. Nick Shapiro, a medical and environmental anthropologist at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, cofounded the group in November and says it's been getting members and institutions through academic networks—people involved "tapping others on the shoulder."

"There is a sense of anticipation and foreboding that is both hanging over us and motivating us to be working as hard as we can," Shapiro told me, noting that the urgency has made it easy to find new scientists to work with. "The purity and ease of collective action has been perfectly antithetical to some of the dark and disconcerting actions that have been unrolling at the highest level of our government."

Shapiro says this problem is being attacked scientifically—in addition to downloading data, EDGI institutions will be tracking changes and deletions made to government websites under Trump in hopes of passing it through peer review and eventually publishing it. (Initial findings will be published on the group's website as soon as changes are noticed.)

"We are spending a huge amount of our time working well past midnight taking time away from our careers in publishing in academic journals to do this," he said.

The people who are doing this work consistently bring up the fact that history is riddled with authoritarian governments who initially gained some of their power via manipulating data. Labash noted that, in the 1930s, Adolf Hitler's Nuremberg laws described "Jews in Germany" as opposed to "German Jews," a distinction that suggested to the public that Jews were outsiders, not true Germans.

"Those are the on-the-surface subtle changes that we as Americans right now need to be on guard against, and call out when we see them," he said. "I can't imagine anything more important, as an academic, a father, an American, or a human than the pursuit of truth."

If you have information or tips about scientists who are doing their part to resist, you can contact me securely and anonymously.