Donald Trump ignored the science. Joe Biden must rely on it

Commentary: The president-elect will need to reverse some of the damage done by the Trump administration's attack on science.

Jackson Ryan Former Science Editor
Jackson Ryan was CNET's science editor, and a multiple award-winning one at that. Earlier, he'd been a scientist, but he realized he wasn't very happy sitting at a lab bench all day. Science writing, he realized, was the best job in the world -- it let him tell stories about space, the planet, climate change and the people working at the frontiers of human knowledge. He also owns a lot of ugly Christmas sweaters.
Jackson Ryan
4 min read

President-elect Joe Biden says he will listen to the scientists.

Drew Angerer/Getty

When President-elect Joe Biden jogged on-stage to give his victory speech on Saturday night, you couldn't see the smile on his face. He wore a black mask wrapped around both ears. Bruce Springsteen's "We Take Care Of Our Own" played over the loudspeakers, but it was a chorus of honking car horns in Wilmington, Delaware, that made the most noise.

This is how you inherit the presidency in the middle of a pandemic.

The United States has been ravaged by the coronavirus unlike any other nation in the world. It has the highest number of deaths and, as of Monday, over 10 million people have been infected. As Biden unmasked and delivered his speech, one word, spoken twice, stood out: science. 

Biden announced he would be naming a group of "leading scientists and experts" to help craft a COVID-19 plan "built on a bedrock of science" and prepare it to be enacted when he takes office on Jan. 20, 2021. That task force, announced Monday, will be led by a former surgeon general of the US, a former head of the US Food and Drug Administration, and a top academic from the Yale School of Medicine.

He also mentioned marshaling "the forces of science" to battle the virus, build prosperity, secure health care, achieve racial justice and save the climate.

It's a start; the first tentative steps toward an administration led by a president who respects and listens to the science -- but we need follow-through. Against the backdrop of a worsening pandemic, the US is desperate for a leader who takes science seriously. 

During Trump's time in office, he continually played down the threat of COVID-19 and falsely claimed it would go away miraculously. He falsely touted "cures" when there are none and needlessly politicized mask-wearing. He refused to adhere to expert consensus and don a face covering, going so far as to mock Biden during the presidential debate for doing so. Days later, Trump tested positive for COVID-19 and even that did not sway him.

The impact of his anti-science rhetoric cannot be understated: It has needlessly exacerbated the pandemic. But its major effects extend beyond the public health crisis. Over the past four years, his attacks on, and diminishment of, science have far exceeded those of the Bush and Obama administrations

Since Trump's earliest days as president, he has eroded trust in scientific institutions and science-based evidence, slashing funding to the Environmental Protection Agency, changing immigration policies, rolling back environmental programs, censoring scientists at agencies like the CDC and pulling out of the World Health Organization. He also pulled out of the Paris Agreement, the United Nations' framework to combat climate change -- making the US the first nation to do so.

That provides some quick wins for the next administration. It will rejoin the Paris Agreement and, likely, the WHO. More definitive action will be required on climate change from the US, a nation now battered by the effects of an ever-warming planet.

That's why it felt so important when Biden, and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, used the word "science" in their victory speeches Saturday. It was such a decisive, deliberate turn. The American people, they said, chose science and truth. 

But it's not quite that simple. There were over 71 million votes cast for President Trump. A large proportion of the American public did not choose science, so a bigger mission awaits: The Biden administration will need to restore the public's faith in impartiality and science-based evidence. Scientists in the US have expressed relief, noting they've weathered the four-year storm and can get back to doing their jobs, but Biden faces an uphill struggle to reverse the damage done by Trump's constant assaults on science.

Consistently leaving science out of policy-making has seen the most vulnerable put at the highest risk. Marginalized communities suffer greatly when science is ignored or undermined. Environmental issues and management affect low-income communities, communities of color and Indigenous communities disproportionately. And during the pandemic, ignoring science has seen the US record almost 240,000 deaths from COVID-19. 

Springsteen's "We Take Care Of Our Own," the song that played in Wilmington as Biden took the podium Saturday, is a bitter rock anthem. In the verses, the Boss' lyrics are sardonic and biting. Springsteen appears frustrated the message in the title is not the reality many people have been living. "Our own" is everybody from sea to shining sea, but Springsteen highlights many are being left behind. We haven't taken care of our own. 

Then, when he hits the chorus, it flips. It's a little more hopeful; a little more uplifting. 

The incoming president and his cabinet have a monumental task ahead of them. If the new administration places science at the center of its policies and decision-making process, if it respects US scientists and follows the evidence on climate change; if it relies on fact rather than fiction, then America can take care of its own -- all of them. 

It's time to take us to the chorus, Joe.