Most scientists, on achieving high office, keep their public remarks to the bland and reassuring. Last week Nina Fedoroff, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), broke ranks in a spectacular manner.
She confessed that she was now “scared to death” by the anti-science movement that was spreading, uncontrolled, across the US and the rest of the western world.
“We are sliding back into a dark era,” she said. “And there seems little we can do about it. I am profoundly depressed at just how difficult it has become merely to get a realistic conversation started on issues such as climate change or genetically modified organisms.”
The remarks of Fedoroff, one of the world’s most distinguished agricultural scientists, are all the more remarkable given their setting.
She made them at the AAAS annual meeting, an event at which scientists normally revel in their latest accomplishments: new insights into marine biology or first results from a recently launched satellite, for example.
But this year there has been a palpable chill to proceedings. Yes, good work was reported to the 8,000 who attended the various symposia and lectures at the meeting in Vancouver.
However, these pronouncements were set against a background of an entire intellectual discipline that realises that it, and its practitioners, are now under sustained attack.
As Fedoroff pointed out, university and government researchers are hounded for arguing that rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are changing the climate. Their emails are hacked while Facebook campaigns call for their dismissal from their posts, calls that are often backed by rightwing politicians. At the last Republican party debate in Florida, Rick Santorum insisted he should be the presidential nominee simply because he had cottoned on earlier than his rivals Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney to the “hoax” of global warming.
“Those of us who grew up in the sixties, when we put men on the Moon, now have to watch as every Republican candidate for this year’s presidential election denies the science behind climate change and evolution. That is a staggering state of affairs and it is very worrying,” said Professor Naomi Oreskes, of the University of California, San Diego.