′I literally wake up in the middle of the night′ | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 14.02.2017
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'I literally wake up in the middle of the night'

How has Trump impacted the US science community? DW speaks to the founder of the Freedom of Science network supporting fired colleagues or those banned from entering the US.

DW: How have some of Donald Trump's executive orders directly affected the scientific community in the United States?

Jen Golbeck: We've seen in the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, which collects a lot of our climate change data - they've been forbidden from releasing data. A lot of their data resources that were online have been deleted and are no longer accessible. And it looks like the administration may require them to submit their scientific papers essentially for political approval before they're actually published, which is unheard of!

We don't know how this is actually going to be implemented. We've seen similar executive orders in the USDA, which deals a lot with agriculture in the US. It's all very uncertain at this point. But there seems to be a very clear mission to remove data from public access across the government and to keep government scientists from communicating with the public in case they say something the administration doesn't like. So it's really out of line with anything that's happened before and it's very concerning, obviously to government scientists who want to do their work and publish it, but really to the whole community worldwide of scientists who want access to this information and data.

You've created the freedom of science network that aims to build a network of scientists fired for doing their job and US-based scientists blocked from entering the US as a result of Trump's executive orders. When Trump was elected, did you ever, as a scientist yourself, think that you would have to go to these measures?

Most of us are finding ourselves in a strange position now where we try to be mostly apolitical. Right? Science is just facts, we're looking for the truth. A lot of us don't want to be involved in anything remotely political. But what we saw in that first week when there was this block on data being released, I was thinking to myself, "If I were one of those scientists, I would be downloading all the data I could get access to and sharing it on these secure repositories that some of our media have." And I'd get fired for that, right? I'd be directly violating what I was told to do. But I think it's important in the public interest that the data gets out there. So I imagine that there are lots of scientists working for the government who are in that position. And I think we all wanted to do something.

So this freedom of science network seemed like a way we could get a lot of scientists in industry and academia to kind of offer support to government scientists who might do that. But it's so strange. It feels like we're leading a resistance. And in fact that's the language that you see used among scientists in the US now - that this is a resistance against the government, which feels just completely unreal , especially here in the US. That is not a thing we've had to do for hundreds of years, and it feels like we're stepping into this space now.

Do you think that scientists could potentially leave the US and head to Europe, Asia or Australia and undertake their work there because the climate in the US is so unpredictable?

I think that's actually the biggest threat coming from the administration, especially because of the executive order that banned immigrants from those seven countries from coming here, which included Iran. We have a lot of Iranian scientists based here in the US. And we're seeing [the executive order] manifest problems in a lot of different ways. One, we have this great scientific infrastructure and community in the US, not because Americans are great at science necessarily, but because we draw all the best minds from the world to come here and work in our universities and our labs. And now all of a sudden - are they really going to want to come here, even if they're not from that list of countries? We've also seen scientists who have green cards, who are permanent residents in the US, being blocked from re-entry when that executive order was in place. So that means anyone who was here is now hesitant to leave.

Scientists have to cross borders all the time. We go to conferences; we work internationally. And so what it means is that anyone wanting to come to the US, whether it's to work here long-term or even to attend a conference and collaborate, is discouraged from doing that because they don't know if they'll necessarily be allowed in. And people who are based here who are not US citizens are very hesitant to leave because they don't know if they'll be able to return.  And I think what that means - and what it would certainly mean to me if I were in this position as a non-European scientist - is that Europe and Canada and Australia all look a lot more attractive because there's amazing scientific communities based there too, and the EU especially has been doing incredible scientific work and supporting their scientists. And you don't have those concerns that now we're starting to see pop up because of this executive order here.  It has the potential - if the courts allow it to eventually come back in place - to really have a very chilling effect on science and I think academics in general here in the US.

How have Trump's orders affected you in your everyday work?

Fortunately, I guess, for me personally, my students haven't been affected by this. They're all US citizens and based here. But at the University of Maryland, where I am, we have about 35,000 students - there are about 300 students and faculty who are directly affected by the  immigration order, who are citizens of those countries.

Are you scared about what the next four years of Trump might mean for science as a whole in the US?

I literally wake up in the middle of the night. I would say half the nights since the election, I've woken up at three in the morning and have not been able to get back to sleep because of anxiety about what's going on.


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