Renewable Matter # 15 / March-April

Science in the Trenches

by Federico Pedrocchi

Since Renewable Matter is a magazine strongly characterized by scientific and technological themes, I thought that my recent experience in the United States could be useful to gain a certain perspective on what is happening in the few months following Trump’s election. I took part in the AAAS annual meeting – American Association for the Advancement of Science. I participate quite regularly. This year the meeting took place in Boston, where the presence of scientific research is noticeable even in bakeries. But the AAAS meeting is an event that goes beyond its location. It involves about a hundred daily seminars, bringing together thousands of men and women working in science, with 70% coming from the States and 30% from all over the world. I know very well the atmosphere of this event, which was very different to that I experienced last February.

We can start by describing some anecdotes. The researcher of Chinese or Japanese descent that before her speech, with her thumb and middle finger of both hands tries to open up her eyes to look truly American, followed by a round of applause and laughter. Indian physicists saying, “I am glad to be here at this 2017 meeting because I don’t know whether next year I’ll be able to take part.” Charts showing data of various phenomena, to which a special according to Trumpism column has been added, i.e. the President’s interpretation. Of course, if the subject is – for argument’s sake – spectrometry, he says that ghosts do not exist in the USA. Perhaps in Europe.

And the basic anxiety-inducing fact – psychologically played down with various bells and whistles – is the following: this man lacks the basic fundamentals to comprehend what science is. This is serious. For example, it is very likely that Mr Trump does not know what entropy is, so he may very well fund research for machinery producing energy in perpetuity with no need for power.

This man is no anti-environmentalist; this man knows no basic paradigms of environmental phenomena. This scenario has never occurred in American history. 

Then there is his solution-driven, decision-making attitude and his aggressiveness. At a meeting devoted to the theme What to do with Trump – there were at least four over five days, with no less that a thousand participants in each – I was gobsmacked upon hearing distinguished scientists giving instructions to researchers in the public administration such as, “Do not let him intimidate you, resist, talk to policy makers in every possible way and explain to them how to do science.”

The tone was similar to the appeals launched by De Gaulle from the English Radio to the French during the Second World War.

The overall feeling, though, after talking to everyone, is that there is no way that this situation can go on for four or even eight years. Withdrawing from international research projects, for example – Trump mentioned it on more than one occasion – may cost hundreds of billions of dollars to the American economy. In conclusion, from the United States – where of course the perception of facts is based upon news and comments that cannot reach across the pond – the scenario looming ahead in the scientific world is one of an imminent and unprecedented hurricane.