Donald Trump's disregard for science has never been much of a secret. Well before he became President, he tweeted that light bulbs can cause cancer, that wind farms are unhealthy, that fracking "poses ZERO health risks," and that Ebola "is much easier to transmit" than the government lets on. As a candidate, he regularly called global warming a hoax, repeated the false notion that vaccines can cause autism, and stated confidently that spraying hair spray in one's apartment does not harm the ozone layer. (It does, a little.) He avoids exercise, proudly fears germs, and, in Mike Pence, has chosen a Vice-President who, when pointedly asked, won't say whether he believes in evolution. The day after Trump won the 2016 election, the editors of the journal Nature wrote that, as incoming President, he "should leave behind his damaging and unpopular attitudes and embrace reality, rationality and evidence."
It's been downhill ever since. Under Trump, the United States has withdrawn from the Paris climate agreement, and the phrases "climate change" and "evidence-based" have been scrubbed from federal Web sites—in the very same year that three once-in-a-century hurricanes and two major drought-fuelled wildfires ravaged parts of the nation. (Last weekend, the temperature in the Arctic soared above forty-five degrees Fahrenheit, and today's forecast calls for historic flooding in Boston.) Two national monuments have been shrunk to make way for mining; the Affordable Care Act is being dismantled, with nothing to replace it; the Environmental Protection Agency has banned E.P.A.-funded scientists, but not industry representatives, from serving on its advisory boards; and the Centers for Disease Control, facing steep budget cuts, will soon all but shut down a vital program that helps more than three dozen developing countries detect and control the spread of infectious diseases.
Trump's newly proposed federal budget for 2019 continues the assault on knowledge and reason. Funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the E.P.A. would each be cut by eighteen per cent or more, compared with the final 2017 budget, which was drafted by the Obama Administration and amended by Trump. The Institutes of Health would see its funding remain flat while it absorbed the work of three agencies from the Department of Health and Human Services. The National Institute of Mental Health would see its budget slashed by thirty per cent, despite Trump's recent avowals that better mental-health treatment is the solution to gun violence. nasa's budget would stay roughly the same, but a number of important Earth-science missions would be eliminated, and Trump would attempt to defund and privatize the International Space Station by 2025.
In many cases, the logic of the cuts is baldly mercenary—no surprise, perhaps, given the prevalence of former energy executives in the Trump Administration. The few increases, to the budgets of the Energy and Interior Departments, are designed to fund fossil-fuel research, offshore drilling, and surface mining. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Land Management and the Oil Spill Research Program would be cut by at least fifteen per cent; Interior's Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses earnings from offshore oil and gas drilling to protect and restore federal public lands, would be cut by two-thirds; and research on clean energy would be cut by more than seventy per cent. Already in 2018, the E.P.A., under Scott Pruitt, has suspended Obama-era changes to the Waters of the U.S. Rule, which would have limited pollution in more than half the nation's waters and pursued a repeal of Obama's Clean Power Plan.
Other cuts would simply obfuscate. The 2019 proposal, like the 2018 budget, eliminates five satellite missions that study aspects of Earth's surface and atmosphere—carbon-dioxide levels, the reflectivity of clouds and snow—specifically in order to monitor the dynamics of climate. "By cutting these missions, there will be gaps in data, much of which are crucial to understanding how the Earth is changing—whether or not you agree that it is changing as a result of man-made emissions," Joyce Penner, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, recently told Eos, a geophysics-news site. According to Trump's moral calculus, it is better to know nothing than to learn something that may conflict with what you think you know. Even the education departments of nasa and noaa would be cut; should those agencies actually learn something, they'll have a harder time sharing the information.
Trump's budget proposal is still just a proposal, of course; Congress has yet to take it up for discussion, and many of its targeted programs enjoy bipartisan support. In a speech last month, Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican and the chairman of the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, called the prospect of privatizing the space station a "numbskull" idea, adding, "I hope that those reports prove as unfounded as Bigfoot."
But Trump has already damaged the scientific cause by simply doing nothing. Thirteen months into his first term, key posts at numerous federal agencies remain unfilled, including the administrator positions for nasa and noaa. The Department of the Interior lacks eleven of its seventeen senior officials, and Trump has yet to propose nominees for six of them, including the directors of the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Needless to say, it's easier to ransack a store when no one is officially minding it.
And many of the candidates whom Trump has nominated for science-oriented roles are woefully underqualified. His pick to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality—essentially the President's top environmental adviser—was Kathleen Hartnett White, a fellow with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a think tank backed by the conservative Koch brothers, and a vocal climate-change denier. In 2015, she lamely argued that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant but "the gas of life," and in December, during a withering confirmation hearing, she conceded that she did not "have any kind of expertise" to answer the question of whether water expands when it is heated. Support for Hartnett White flagged when it turned out that many of her written answers to the committee were plagiarized from the answers submitted by Pruitt during his nomination hearing. Michael Dourson, Trump's candidate to lead the E.P.A.'s chemical-safety division, was a similar washout. As a researcher, Dourson was often paid by chemical companies to study and bolster their safety reviews—a conflict of interest that even some Republicans on the confirmation panel could not overlook.
It feels almost quaint to talk of "truth" and "facts" anymore, but, as an endeavor, science at least strives to honestly approach them. Which is why it's all the more dispiriting that, for a full year now, Trump has operated without a Presidential science adviser—the longest the Oval Office has gone without one since the position was created, decades ago. It is the adviser's job to help the President navigate the conflicting data and recommendations that can arise during moments of crisis—during a natural disaster, say, or in an unexpectedly virulent flu season. "You need somebody who the President trusts, who can sort all that stuff out and who can explain to the President that there are all these different perspectives," Neal Lane, a former science adviser under President Clinton, told Scientific American recently.
That's the obstacle, of course: this President trusts no one; he can't abide to read even his intelligence reports. Science thrives on curiosity, investigation, vigorous discourse, and flexibility of thought. Donald Trump is a party of one, interested solely in hearing the sound of his own voice, regardless of the veracity of what it has to say. For now, the interim science adviser is Michael Kratsios, the deputy assistant in the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Kratsios, who is thirty-one, worked previously as chief of staff to Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire and Trump supporter, and has a bachelor's degree in political science—the only kind of science, perhaps, that Trump can understand.