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Researchers must convince Trump that science matters, interior secretary says

Researchers must convince Trump that science matters, interior secretary says


‘Science is in the best interests of our nation’

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Bill Nye, Questlove, Jewell at the National Park Foundation's Find Your Park Event, Celebrating for National Park Service Centennial
Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for National Park Service

Scientists will need to speak up about their research and the importance of scientific integrity — or risk not being heard by the incoming administration, said US Interior Secretary Sally Jewell at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union today.

Her talk was a carefully worded call to arms for scientists to become part of the political process. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” she said. Part of that will require learning how to talk about science not only in the kind of language a layperson can understand, but also in the language of dollars and cents. Communicating science’s value will be critical in order to appeal to an increasingly business-oriented administration. 

“When you have a President-elect of the United States that’s in the real estate development business, your science matters,” she said. “Nobody wants to build a building in harm’s way if they’ve got good data that tells them where they can build it out of harm’s way.”

Jewell currently occupies the post that President-elect Trump just tapped Montana Republican Ryan Zinke to fill. As interior secretary, she oversees 500 million acres of public lands as well as mining, drilling, and energy development. Before President Obama appointed her, she was the CEO of the outdoor outfitter R.E.I. Earlier today, she spoke to a mixed room of scientists and media attending the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. The scientists in the audience studied a range of subjects including Earth sciences, planetary sciences, and climate change. 

There’s a lot of uncertainty about what the future holds for science and scientists, Jewell said. And she declined to speculate about what the next administration will do. “I think it’s fair to say we’ve all seen a lot of mixed signals,” she said.

But she added that stepping into the role of interior secretary will “dump a bucket of ice water quickly on whatever ideology you walk in with.” Overseeing the lands, and the waters, and the peoples suffering because of climate change drives home the magnitude of the problem, she said, and makes it hard not to want to be part of the solution.  

Science is and will continue to be critical for that solution. She called it foundational to government work. “It is a key input in crafting public policy. How can we, or somebody in a position like mine make decisions about land or water or wildlife if we don’t actually understand what’s going on?” she said. 

To make sure politicians understand, scientists will have to continue to put themselves out there on platforms like social media. She name checked Snapchat and Twitter, and pointed out that one of the most popular tweets from the US Geological Survey reached a lot of people because Leonardo DiCaprio retweeted it. DiCaprio has more than 16 million followers. “You guys are all rockstars to me,” Jewell told the crowd. “But I don’t think any of you have 16 million followers.” (She called her tally of around 83,000 followers “a few thousand.”)

Reading between the lines, her message seemed to signal the danger to science in the coming years. She repeatedly emphasized that scientists will need to convince the Trump administration of their value — which means talking in dollars and cents.

She gave an example from her days as the CEO of REI, trying to talk to congresspeople: “We used to go in there talking about how public lands are important for their conservation values ... but that didn’t really work so well,” she said. So she changed her strategy from talking about “the green of conservation, to the green of money.” After all, the outdoor recreation industry is a $646 billion dollar industry, she said, adding that it’s about the same size as pharmaceuticals, motor vehicles, and motor vehicle parts combined.

“Science is in the best interests of our nation, and it’s in the best interest of businesses,” she said at the press briefing. But if scientists fail to convince them, they could be, as she said, “on the menu.”

“I am confident —” she paused. “In the future.”