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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Another Day, Another Anti-Science Trump Pick For Federal Office

By Phil Plait

In case you were still wondering about the incoming Trump administration's attitude toward science —and at this point you’d have to live on Mars to not see what's going on— take a look at the person Trump has picked to run the Office of Management and Budget (OMB): Congressperson Mick Mulvaney (R-South Carolina).

As we've seen, Trump's choices for government positions have been anything from grossly unqualified to vocally antagonistic toward the agency they'll be in charge of; for his part Mulvaney says Trump will "restore fiscal sanity back in Washington," which is at best a bizarre proclamation. And of course he’s a climate change denier; that’s de rigeur for nearly every Trump pick.

But he’s more worrisome even than that. As Pema Levy at Mother Jones has written, Mulvaney questions whether government should be funding scientific research.

In a now-deleted (though cached) Facebook page, Mulvany wrote, “… do we really need government-funded research at all?”

The context here was about Zika virus research; he was asking specifically why money was being spent on the virus’s effect on infant microcephaly when in Colombia there were many cases of zika infections but no cases of microcephaly (in reality, there were dozens of such cases, but far fewer than expected). In his opinion, this casts doubt on the connection between the virus and microcephaly.

There are two reasons why Mulvaney’s claim here is deeply, deeply troubling.

One is that there is wide scientific consensus that zika and microcephaly are linked, and had been for some time before Mulvaney wrote that Facebook page. Either he or his staff hadn’t done even the minimum amount of research needed to understand the situation (which can be easily found by simply googling the CDC site) or had done just enough to confirm his own bias before he jumped to denying the science.

But then he undermined his own point by bringing up a seeming problem with the research, contradicting himself on a much more fundamental level: When science comes up with a finding that’s not understood, why would you pull the funding at that point?

That’s the exact worst time to cut funding, because that’s precisely the time when we need even more research, more people investigating the problem! An unusual finding, or one that seems to go against the other results, means you’ve found something interesting, something important. If you find a spot on the planet where a disease doesn’t have the same terrible outcome as it does everywhere else, don’t you think we should find out why?

In Mulvaney’s opinion, it would’ve been better to simply bury our heads in the sand and ignore the problem — worse, to make sure we couldn't even study it. That's horrible.

Given the context of his Facebook post, I’m hesitant to extrapolate his claim about not funding zika research to not funding any scientific research, but the way he phrased it is disturbing. If he can deny the need for such obvious and critical research into a dangerous virus, then what else will he turn away from?

And, as head of OMB, he will have Trump’s ear, and influence over the Federal budget and government agencies. This concerns me greatly, as it does the Union of Concerned Scientists, which felt strongly enough to issue a statement condemning Mulvaney's stance on science.

I keep looking for some ray of hope, some move by the incoming administration that’s even just a nod toward reality. When it comes to science, it’s become crystal clear the opposite is true: Trump and his cohorts will do what they can to reverse many of the advances we’ve made, and they’ll use their gross (and/or willfull) misunderstanding of the foundational principles of science to do so.

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