New AAUP Report Addresses the Assault on Science

By Anita Levy

In December, the AAUP released a report that details troubling threats to academic freedom in the physical and natural sciences that have been exacerbated by the Trump administration’s hostility to science. Prepared by a subcommit­tee of Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, National Security, the Assault on Science, and Academic Freedom finds that two areas in the sciences are par­ticularly under threat. The first has to do with international scientific exchange and, especially, charging innocent Chinese or Chinese Amer­ican scientists with espionage in the name of national security. The sec­ond is climate science, an area that has been subject to vicious attacks that have intensified significantly under President Trump.

The report’s survey of recent criminal cases involving interna­tional scientific exchange suggests that the government’s invocation of national security claims related to espionage has not been justi­fied and is negatively affecting the ability of the United States to par­ticipate in global science. Further, the Trump administration’s efforts to restrict entry to the United States through travel bans and to limit the number of H-1B visas available to foreign scientists pose disturbing threats to academic freedom. The report argues that the restrictions under consideration now, even if they are ultimately defeated in the courts, create a chill­ing environment for the international exchange of scholars, including sci­entists whose work may have no obvious political implications.

Challenges to the validity of scientific findings and to the free pursuit of scientific inquiry have received official endorsement under the Trump administration. The report notes that many in the scientific community view Trump’s appointments to key cabinet posts and federal agencies, including the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Interior, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, as antitheti­cal to the institution of science and its role in public policy debates. Congressional efforts to curb scientific work, especially in climate science, have also intensified.

The report details how pri­vate individuals, encouraged by government officials and by orga­nizations that use social media to mobilize their constituencies, have made threats and engaged in various forms of online and other harassment against scientists and other faculty members whose research, teaching, or public commentary run counter to their own beliefs. Not only individuals engage in such threatening activ­ity; well-funded and powerful interest groups have also sought to intimidate scientific research­ers with whom they disagree, especially through freedom of information “fishing expeditions” and notably in relation to the communications and research of climate scientists.

The report concludes with recommendations for scientists, colleges and universities, scientific associations, scholarly organiza­tions, government employees, and news outlets on how to resist efforts by government agencies to unduly restrict or discredit scientific research on grounds of national security, to speak out against the politicization of science, to report accurately on scientific issues, and to protect academic freedom.

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