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View from Washington: In Trump Can We Trust?

The president has undermined the integrity of his administration's public statements with implications for science and beyond

The American scientific community expected to have a fraught relationship with President Donald Trump. It has seen little during his first few days in office to suggest otherwise.

Yesterday (24 January), it emerged that the Trump administration has instructed at least three more major federal agencies engaged in scientific research to effectively cease or curtail all communication with the public and media unless they have prior White House approval.

Those bodies are the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services. The EPA has also been told to stop promoting its involvement in any public events (conferences, talks, webinars, etc) due to take place in the next 60 days.

It may well come as little surprise to discover that these three organisations are, in science terms, closely associated with research and data related to climate change. The White House has previously clamped down on related Tweets from both the Department of the Interior (which also got into the issue of attendance at Trump’s inauguration) and specifically the Badlands National Park (although this may already be backfiring badly).

Still, Trump was clear that he intended to tear down President Obama’s climate change policy aggressively. Looks like he’s being true to his word. And, before we break out the torches and pitchforks, let’s remember that any new administration – particularly one fundamentally and ideologically different from that before it – has the initial right to push ‘pause’ while it reconfigures public statements from various departments to match new policies.

But what about facts?

The US Federal Government is considered to be a comprehensive and a trustworthy source, particularly (but not exclusively) of scientific data. This role can coexist with different policies in different administrations – heck, even journalists acknowledge that the CIA’s World Factbook is a treasure trove of geopolitical data, yet take a suitably wary view of the agency’s activities.

The problem right now concerns how Trump and his team have so quickly poisoned the well with their frankly juvenile inauguration estimation Twitterpation.

The individual issue itself is astonishingly trivial: the Donald failed to get as many people to turn out for him as did Obama in a region that overwhelmingly voted against him and, eight years ago, massively in favour of the other guy. Wow! What a surprise! Next up: Chelsea to throw victory parade along Caledonian Road.

However, the resulting hissy fit took a darker turn when Trump, as reported by The Washington Post, directed his press secretary to organise a formal media event and make – almost at the top of his voice – the demonstrably false assertion that his boss drew “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period!”

Spin-weary UK readers may have lost the thread of this tale. Blighty has all those dubious off-the-record lobby briefings, after all. So, the key point to consider is that if the US President’s spokesman goes into one of his or her very public press conferences and obviously spreads a falsehood, regardless of the seriousness or triviality of the subject, everything he or she says in future is automatically open to doubt – as is anything else the administration chooses to distribute as fact.

This brings us back to the concerns now circling the EPA and other agencies. By apparently clamping down on what they can and cannot say in that broader context, the Trump administration has created an atmosphere in which sinister rather than pragmatic motives have been assumed.

And while one would like to argue for a less fearful position, it is very hard to do so. Rather you fall back on the notion that vigilance is fundamental to the scientific method anyway.

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