The Backpedaler-in-Chief

The Trump administration has retracted its most alarming anti-science moves. Is that heartening or a sign of more disturbing policies to come?

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks as he meets with county sheriffs during a listening session in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on February 7, 2017 in Washington, DC.
President Donald Trump speaks as he meets with county sheriffs during a listening session in the White House on Tuesday in Washington.

Andrew Harrer - Pool/Getty Images

Scientists are terrified of Donald Trump. The president and his staff, who at times seem ignorant of basic scientific facts, have already made a series of attempts to undermine scientific work. Researchers at several agencies have been censored, silenced, and otherwise intimidated; public documents on climate change have been targeted for deletion; fringe ideas in public health and the environment have been getting traction. The last few news cycles in Washington have so thoroughly antagonized the nation’s scientific establishment that it now makes sense to ask whether Trump will be the first anti-science president in U.S. history, or the most anti-science president that we’ve ever had, or maybe just the shameless perpetrator of a perverse war on truth.

Lost in all this consternation, though, is the fact that almost every single move that Trump has made against the scientific enterprise has quickly been retracted. His administration may be prone to grand, aggressive gestures of control, but it always seems to follow them with a grand volte-face.

This pattern of taking wild swings at science, and then shrinking back, started early on. Near the beginning of December, Trump’s transition team sent a lengthy questionnaire to the Department of Energy asking for the names of any staffers who had worked on various issues related to climate change. When news of this apparent witch hunt leaked, the Trump team changed direction. “The questionnaire was not authorized or part of our standard protocol,” an official said on Dec. 14. “The person who sent it has been properly counseled.”

Then on Jan. 10, the president-elect met with noted vaccination skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at Trump Tower. Trump has suggested in the past that vaccines might be dangerous to children: “I want smaller doses over a longer period of time,” he said at one Republican debate. “I think you’re going to see a big impact on autism.” Following the January meeting, Kennedy told the press that he’d accepted an invitation to chair a commission on vaccine safety. But hours later, in the face of widespread outrage, the Trump team walked the story back: The boss had only been “exploring the possibility,” said Trump aide Hope Hicks, and “no decisions have been made at this time.”

Trump’s lunge-and-feint routine only grew more blatant after he took office. On Jan. 23, the Monday after his inauguration, the new administration prepared a disturbing multi-front assault on the integrity of federal research. This was followed by a swift multi-front retreat.

First, the Trump administration told the Environmental Protection Agency that it would freeze all the agency’s grants and contracts until it could review them. Three days later, following an outcry from activists and members of Congress, the White House abruptly thawed the same grants and contracts. “We finished our review process,” explained EPA spokesman Doug Ericksen. “There was simply a pause and everything’s up and running.”*

On Tuesday, Jan. 24, the White House informed staffers at the EPA to pull any pages from its website that had to do with climate change. Again, the scientific community responded with outrage and alarm. By Wednesday, Jan. 25, Ericksen suggested the administration had a different plan in mind. “We’re looking at scrubbing it up a bit,” he clarified, “putting a little freshener on it, and getting it back up to the public.”

Even as Ericksen backed away from the plan to censor the EPA’s website, he created another imbroglio when he announced that the White House would review all of the agency’s data and publications on a case-by-case basis. “Everything is subject to review,” he told reporters on Wednesday. A few hours later he reversed direction yet again, calling accounts of his earlier statement “inaccurate” and affirming that scientific data would not, in fact, be subject to political review.

The backtracking has continued. Most recently, on Monday, Jan. 30, it came out in the press that Trump had appointed a leading climate-change denier named Kenneth Haapala to the team handling appointments to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which happens to be an important source of data on changes to the climate. The next day, as criticism mounted, the administration took its favored course—directly backward: According to an anonymous White House source, Haapala was kicked off the team.

For scientists, there are still plenty of reasons to be frightened. Congress just approved the nomination of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education despite the fact that her family charities have been linked to those who support teaching an alternative to evolution. Meanwhile, Trump has nominated climate-change skeptics to lead both the Department of Agriculture (“liberals have lost all credibility when it comes to climate science”) and the EPA (“scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind”). And then there are Trump’s public statements from before he became president. Those include a bizarre and unfounded attack in 2015 on the credibility of the National Institutes of Health. “I hear so much about the NIH,” he told Michael Savage, “and it’s terrible.”

When it comes to anti-science policies, though, as opposed to anti-science nominees, Trump has so far reneged on every count. What should we make of these reversals?

It’s possible that Trump has been governing by trial balloon. That’s how he carried out his presidential campaign: He’d float some outlandish notion—e.g., that South Korea and Japan ought to have nuclear weapons or that women should be punished for illegal abortions—and then abandon it if necessary. Perhaps his staff has adopted this approach. They’ll propose something extreme (a case-by-case review of all scientific publications, for instance) and then back down if it doesn’t fly.

This constant pushing at the boundaries of acceptability could have its own strategic value. An onslaught of clumsy and abortive strikes against the science establishment might serve as cover for more careful and strategic moves against the status quo. EPA nominee Scott Pruitt, for example, seems poised to pare back environmental regulations in subtle, lasting ways. According to the New York Times, his associates suggest he’ll avoid Trump’s favored “shock and awe” routine, and threats to eviscerate the agency, in favor of selective cuts and carefully rewritten regulations.

If Pruitt can find a way to gut Obama’s climate action plan, or his rules on water pollution, that would surely be more consequential than a policy on how scientists express their views on Twitter. But it isn’t clear to me that moves like the ones Pruitt is reportedly considering should always count as being “anti-science.” There’s a difference between the Trump administration’s refutation of the fundamental values of the scientific community—e.g. shutting down entire avenues of inquiry or bending facts to fit a pre-existing view—and conservatives pushing a small-government philosophy that many natural scientists (who tend to be left-wing) find abhorrent. It’s legitimately “anti-science” to abandon climate regulations on the basis of distorted evidence. It would be more accurate to describe other regulatory rollbacks as being “anti-government” or “pro-business.”

Take, for example, Trump’s potential picks to run the Food and Drug Administration. As a group, they have endorsed weaker standards for approval of new drugs and medical devices. One possible appointee, Jim O’Neill, would like to allow the sale of new drugs even if they haven’t yet been found to be effective. There are plenty of reasons to oppose this lowering of standards, which could be bad for public health, but is this really “anti-science”? The whole point would be to give more leeway to an industry that’s based on scientific research.

Indeed, the administration’s cruder, stop-and-go gestures could be a way of baiting its opponents into outrage over what appears to be a “war on science.” If researchers react too aggressively to what has so far been a vaporous assault, they may end up weakening their own positions. Instead of standing up for basic scientific values and asking for protection of their roles as unbiased expert sources, science activists would be drawn into more explicitly ideological debates. Trump’s supporters, for their part, are already skeptical of the scholarly elite, and the sight of white-coats marching on the Capitol will only calcify their stance.

It seems unwise to celebrate the fact that Trump’s administration has decided not to implement several of its most outrageous proposals. (Shouldn’t we be lamenting the fact that pro-science policies haven’t been adopted in their place?) Even when the administration calls backsies, these anti-science moves can still cause lasting damage: At the very least, they signal its antipathy toward mainstream expertise and telegraph the threat of more effective meddling to come. Still, the backpedaling that we’ve seen so far suggests some modest grounds for optimism. It seems the White House may be more sensitive to public peer review than one might have guessed.

*Correction, Feb. 13, 2017: The original version of this story cited the example of a gag order issued to the Agricultural Research Service, the scientific arm of the Department of Agriculture, an order that was rescinded the following day. Subsequent reporting from Science revealed that the order came from career officials within the ARS and did not originate at the White House. The relevant paragraph has been deleted. (Return.)