The March for Science on April 14, focused on Washington, D.C., and accompanied by hundreds of complementary events worldwide, promises to be an unfocused affair. According to the organizers, the marches are part of "a non-partisan movement to celebrate science and the role it plays in everyday lives." But if last year's event — which one science writer called "a primal scream against newly elected U.S. President Donald Trump and his policies" — is any indicator, it's clear that the march will be once again be hyper-partisan, an outlet for Trump-haters of every description. If the scientific establishment activists would only take a break from its nonstop outrage about the Trump administration and congressional Republicans' supposed destruction of science, it might find some consolation in the fact that the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill signed by the president last month contained massive increases in government research funding, the largest in a decade. As reported in the journal Science:
The National Institutes of Health gets a $3 billion, 8.3 percent increase, to $37 billion. The National Science Foundation receives $7.8 billion, a 3.9 , percent $295 million increase. The agency's research account would get a boost of about 5 percent $6.3 billion. The Department of Energy's Office of Science gets $6.26 billion, an increase of $868 million, a bump of about 15 percent. Congress also rejected the White House's proposal to eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, and gave it an additional $47 million, to $353 million. NASA science programs get an additional $457 million, to $6.2 billion, a 7.9 percent increase. USDA research programs get an increase of $33 million, to $1.2 billion.
Overall, government spending on research and development will be far beyond the most optimistic wish list that science advocates could have hoped for, and the marches this year should be celebratory. Also, last month, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced that his Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service will not regulate plants solely because they were modified via molecular genetic engineering techniques. This overturns the Obama Administration's unscientific, myth-based, and burdensome opposition to agricultural biotechnology. But we'll bet that there will be more grumbling and griping than balloons and bands.
We suspect that the events will echo the misgivings of Michael Specter, who mused in The New Yorker last year that although the march may be a good idea in theory, "I fear that, if the march is seen as little more than a crowd forming in the nation's capital, it will come across as just another statement of vitriol delivered by Trump's enemies." That's exactly how it came across.
Moreover, we cannot help but wonder where these activists were during the Clinton years, when Vice President Al Gore, serving as the administration's science and technology czar, inflicted near-mortal blows on agricultural and environmental biotechnology and nuclear power, among other sectors.
And we cannot help but wonder where they were when Clinton's Undersecretary of Agriculture Ellen Haas, who had previously headed an anti-technology advocacy group, deconstructed science thus: "You can have 'your' science or 'my' science or 'somebody else's' science. By nature, there is going to be a difference." Translation: "I don't give a damn about the consensus in the scientific community. My views are just as valid as the experts'."
The activists were also AWOL during the next Democratic administration – that of Barack Obama – when the FDA's approval of a faster-growing, farmed, genetically engineered salmon was delayed for years by the intervention of presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett and a White House chef. (Yes, the chef. You read that correctly.)
With unwise regulatory policies and scientifically unsound decisions, the Obama administration virtually obliterated entire sectors of biotechnology, including genetically-engineered food animals and genetically-engineered insects to control disease-transmitting mosquitoes. Last year, many (most?) of the marches may as well have hung a sign on its social media presence: Republicans Need Not Apply. However, it was the administration of George H.W. Bush that created the Bush-Quayle Council on Competitiveness, which made great strides in moving science from the laboratory to the farm and pharmacy. And President Trump appears to be trying to replicate those successes with the Office of American Innovation, although admittedly it has gotten off to a slow start.
The truth is that the Clinton and Obama administrations were anything but pro-science.
There are many scientific and medical issues on which there is wide agreement in the scientific community – for example, the need for better approaches to slicing and dicing big data; more research on immunotherapies, dementias and precision medicine; innovative, flexible designs for clinical trials; and nimbler responses to emerging diseases such as Zika virus and avian flu. But the organizers and participants in these marches have been largely focused on identity politics and social issues instead of trying to find common ground on specific scientific areas. In the long run, we suspect they'll find that stiff-arming Republicans at a time of GOP control of the White House and Congress is not a winning strategy – for the organizers of the march, the scientific community, or the nation.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology. Follow him on Twitter at @henryimiller. Julie Kelly is a senior contributor for American Greatness. Follow her on Twitter at @julie_kelly2.