Staying Composed in Trumpland

At the Humboldt Colloquium in Washington some 300 researchers discussed international cooperation and dialogue with a public sceptical of science.

Henry is quite an item. The largest elephant ever shot in the wild greets visitors as they enter the rotunda of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington. But despite this stuffed pachyderm’s vast dimensions, Henry is now facing even more spectacular competition from other museums. Who is going to get excited about an elephant when they can see a T. Rex elsewhere, Hans-Dieter Sues, head of the Smithsonian’s Department of Palaeobiology, asks himself. “I really want to persuade our directors that we need a dinosaur rather than Henry, but now that the Republicans are back in power, that’s probably not going to happen,” Sues jokes. The palaeontologist has had his encounters with creationists in Donald Trump’s party, amongst others; for those who deny evolution, the Smithsonian take on the origin of species and the development of dinosaurs as well as humans must be a thorn in the flesh.

At the beginning of March, Humboldt Foundation alumni, American junior researchers and researchers from Germany met at the Humboldt Colloquium.
At the beginning of March, Humboldt Foundation alumni, American junior researchers and researchers from Germany met at the Humboldt Colloquium.
Photo: Humboldt Foundation/GAP-J Frishman
At the beginning of March, Humboldt Foundation alumni, American junior researchers and researchers from Germany met at the Humboldt Colloquium.
Photo: Humboldt Foundation/GAP-J Frishman
At the beginning of March, Humboldt Foundation alumni, American junior researchers and researchers from Germany met at the Humboldt Colloquium.
Photo: Humboldt Foundation/GAP-J Frishman
At the beginning of March, Humboldt Foundation alumni, American junior researchers and researchers from Germany met at the Humboldt Colloquium.
Photo: Humboldt Foundation/GAP-J Frishman
At the beginning of March, Humboldt Foundation alumni, American junior researchers and researchers from Germany met at the Humboldt Colloquium.
Photo: Humboldt Foundation/GAP-J Frishman
At the beginning of March, Humboldt Foundation alumni, American junior researchers and researchers from Germany met at the Humboldt Colloquium.
Photo: Humboldt Foundation/GAP-J Frishman
At the beginning of March, Humboldt Foundation alumni, American junior researchers and researchers from Germany met at the Humboldt Colloquium.
Photo: Humboldt Foundation/GAP-J Frishman
At the beginning of March, Humboldt Foundation alumni, American junior researchers and researchers from Germany met at the Humboldt Colloquium.
Photo: Humboldt Foundation/GAP-J Frishman
„At the beginning of March, Humboldt Foundation alumni, American junior researchers and researchers from Germany met at the Humboldt Colloquium.
Photo: Humboldt Foundation/GAP-J Frishman
At the beginning of March, Humboldt Foundation alumni, American junior researchers and researchers from Germany met at the Humboldt Colloquium.
Photo: Humboldt Foundation/GAP-J Frishman
Exchange on the edges of the colloquium. How can we persuade the public that science is important for everyone?
Photo: Humboldt Foundation/GAP-J Frishman
Exchange on the edges of the colloquium. How can we persuade the public that science is important for everyone?
Photo: Humboldt Foundation/GAP-J Frishman
Exchange on the edges of the colloquium. How can we persuade the public that science is important for everyone?
Photo: Humboldt Foundation/GAP-J Frishman
Exchange on the edges of the colloquium. How can we persuade the public that science is important for everyone?
Photo: Humboldt Foundation/GAP-J Frishman

Is the freedom of science at stake?

So, will Sues and his colleagues be forced to face hard times? When rubbishing creationism, will evolution researchers have to watch what they say in future because the public, or even the highest authorities in the country, may deride them as “fake scientists”? Is there a threat of a change in science policy under the new government? Will Washington divert the flow of funding away, for example, from climate researchers and back to fracking and fossil energy experts? In the last resort, is perhaps even the independence of free, evidence-based science at stake?

Global march for science

Questions like these are not only occupying many researchers in the United States at present. They are the reason why scientists across the world, not just in Washington, will be taking to the streets in April on a March for Science, demonstrating for the freedom of research. And, of course, these issues made their presence felt when some 300 Alexander von Humboldt Foundation alumni, American junior researchers and researchers from Germany got together in Washington at the beginning of March to discuss international cooperation.

Pragmatism in hard times

Wolfgang Ketterle
What does the future hold?
Physics Nobel laureate Ketterle is concerned
about funding for basic research.
Photo: Humboldt Foundation/
GAP-J Frishman

Anyone who was expecting everyone to be up in arms was disappointed. The atmosphere at this colloquium was calm and pragmatic. Yes, the effects of the change in government were already palpable. The travel ban restricting entrance for travellers from certain Muslim countries did indeed mean that not just researchers from the countries affected, but from others too, had not been able to attend conferences or take up positions in the United States. Restricting academic mobility inflicts serious damage on networks of international cooperation, the astrophysicist Steven Beckwith from the University of California emphasised. “Many of our students come from Iran and I wouldn’t want to do without them. In mathematics, they are better trained than anyone.” Wolfgang Ketterle, German-born physics Nobel laureate who works at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is also concerned that there may be ever bigger cuts in the funding for basic research than there have been anyway in the last few years. Humanities scholars and social scientists are also sceptical and fearful for their future project funding.

A tradition of mixed financing

But this does not spark all-round panic. Concerns of this kind are nothing new in the US. After all, previous governments also placed the emphasis firmly on application-related research. Universities and research institutions have traditionally relied on mixed financing, spreading risk and reducing dependence on individual ministries or other sources – a good strategy, especially when a research-funding body that the new government considers superfluous, like the environmental agency EPA, is due to be closed down. And those who cannot acquire funding from industry or the military and do not have their own endowment like the big private universities can perhaps turn to philanthropic organisations, which are much readier to open their purses in the United States than they are in Germany and other European countries.

Rebecca Keiser from the National Science Foundation tried to allay fears about dirigisme. Her organisation, the most important source of state research funds in the US, had no interest in prioritising certain research topics above others, but was putting its faith in the science community. “The researchers who apply to us know better than we do, and better than Congress, what the important topics are.”

“Science is part of our DNA”

Vaughan Turekian, the Science and Technology Advisor in the US Department of State also sounded the all-clear on the fear the new government could be hostile towards science. “Science is part of our DNA in the State Department,” he said and promised to continue supporting transatlantic research cooperation. “Common challenges like an ageing society demand cooperation and sharing research data, in brain research for example. That’s how we can tackle diseases like Alzheimer’s.” Taking part in the colloquium, the German Ambassador Peter Wittig and the Member of Bundestag Michelle Müntefering emphasised the value of both collaboration between researchers either side of the Atlantic and the role of foreign educational policy. “As scientists, we have to build bridges and not walls,” Humboldt Foundation President Helmut Schwarz concluded. “Our network can play an important role in our transatlantic relations.”

Exchange on the edges of the colloquium. How can we persuade the public that science is important for everyone?
Exchange on the edges of the colloquium. How can we persuade the public that science is important for everyone?
Photo: Humboldt Foundation/GAP-J Frishman

“We live in an elite bubble. That’s not good”

From robotics as a threat to the human workforce, via climate change, through to ethical issues of genetic engineering – the list of topics discussed that are dependent on international academic exchange and that should not be impeded by national governments is both long and uncontentious. As uncontentious as discussions between like-minded academics tend to become. But, according to Rebecca Keiser, the consensus amongst researchers ought to generate more intensive discussion with the public and make the case for scientific facts. “We need better communications to counter allegations of supposedly fake science.” “We live in an elite bubble. That’s not good,” Steven Beckwith endorses. The new government’s charges of false media and fake news could be a taste of conflicts to come about scientific subjects was an opinion frequently voiced outside the panel discussions.

More dialogue with sceptics

For all the talk of scepticism about science issuing from some government circles it should not be forgotten that there are politicians in the Republican Party who recognise climate change and appreciate independent science. Whether they will become allies in the fight for public opinion on sensitive scientific topics? Hans-Dieter Sues from the Smithsonian reported: “I once took a conservative politician and his children around the museum. He was most impressed. I asked him whether it didn’t disturb him that I had told his children so much about evolution and nothing about creationism. ‘No problem,’ he replied, ‘I’m only actually against the theory of evolution because that’s what the electorate wants to hear.’” Whether dealing with vaccination opponents, climate sceptics or evolution doubters, to a greater extent than ever before, science will have to initiate the dialogue with a public that is sceptical or even hostile in its attitude to research.

The colloquium was held in collaboration with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the American Friends of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the German Research Foundation (DFG).

Contact

Alexander von Humboldt Foundation
Press, Communications and Marketing
Tel: +49 228 833-257
Fax:+49 228 833-441
presse(at)avh.de