Trump, populism and alternative facts: UK science & research responds to US gagging order

One of Donald Trump's first acts on taking office was to impose a blackout on America's scientific community, imposing a gag on its interaction with the media or public via social and banning it from sharing findings with global colleagues.

The US gagging order on science and research could have wide-reaching consequences (┬ęThinkstockPhotos)
The US gagging order on science and research could have wide-reaching consequences (┬ęThinkstockPhotos)
It is still early days for the edict and, as with the president’s attempt to ban people entering the US from seven Muslim-majority countries, it could be subject to numerous legal and political challenges.  
For now, it stands, so PRWeek asked comms chiefs – representing the cream of British science and research – how they reacted to the news and what message the Trump ban sends out to the scientific establishment.

Olly Arber, director of comms, Nesta
"Trump's decision to gag scientists sends a chilling message to the scientific community. The US has been at the forefront of scientific progress for the past two centuries and EPA reports on the impact of climate change have proved intrinsic in getting key stakeholders round the table. This order threatens to undermine the credibility of American science and is a direct attack on the UK's and world's scientific community. It could also prove detrimental to public support for key issues such as climate change over the long term. If the new administration has shown us anything, it's that facts are open to interpretation. As a result, it is highly likely that some scientific research will become a communications tool for the new administration to adapt to suit its purposes. There is a new world order emerging that is threatening the very basis of science and the scientific method. It is essential that scientists everywhere speak up to protect and defend the independence of science and make the case twice as loudly for why their work must remain free from political bias. Alternative futures rather than alternative facts is the principle on which all science and communications should be built."

Paul Mylrea
Paul Mylrea, director of comms, University of Cambridge
"The freedom to operate critically and freely is vital in academic research. The UK and Cambridge in particular collaborates widely with US institutions. There’s a huge amount of work that goes on between British scientists and scientists in the US. This collaboration is vital, particularly in research that is addressing complex global problems. So there is considerable concern about this at the moment."

Rob Davidson, executive director, Scientists for EU
"UK researchers recently had to fight to avert a gagging bill proposed by our own government and we see Trump's moves as chilling and symptomatic of the anti-expert, post-fact populism that is sweeping our countries at the moment. With Trump, all things are uncertain. His appointments and his own statements indicate a selective, revisionary approach to facts and scientists are rightly worried that business interests will overrule evidence. But he could just be throwing his weight around more than is normal during transition between administrations. He's got a persona to sell. We would hope that communication between researchers would still be possible because it's the media he seems to want to orchestrate. But what happens if the UK members of a team want to publish data collected in the US, especially if it involved subjects like air pollution or climate change, for example? With Brexit Britain desperate for trade deals it doesn't seem like we'll be leveraging our 'soft power' to push back."

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