In the midst of an avalanche of political disruptions since President Donald Trump took office, one issue has received insufficient attention at Berkeley: the new Secretary of Energy Rick Perry. The former governor of Texas and Republican laughing stock now wields immense power over the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory — a crown jewel of federal science research and a key institution at our university. Berkeley Lab is managed by the University of California, but its facility in the hills behind UC Berkeley campus are owned by the Department of Energy, and its research is conducted on the agency’s behalf. Hundreds of UC Berkeley professors and graduate students are employed by Berkeley Lab, working on broad scientific projects of every category ranging from nuclear weapons to renewable energy to cybersecurity to environmental economics.
Berkeley’s most brilliant scientific minds now effectively answer to a halfwit wannabe cowboy who once vowed to abolish the agency he currently leads. (No disrespect to cowboys). Perry’s appointment is a tragedy for UC Berkeley and for the global scientific community. The looming crisis at DOE could have pernicious effects beyond what any of us can easily imagine or predict. While not as immediately alarming as other issues emanating from the Trump administration, this crisis it will unfold in slow motion — behind closed doors.
Nobody knows what Perry will do with the Department of Energy, but the secretary’s political preferences suggest that we are about to witness a sea change of a potentially ruinous magnitude. To give a few examples: Perry has called the globally accepted science behind climate change a “contrived, phony mess.” He has promised to eliminate the Iran nuclear deal, the technical details of which were orchestrated in large part by his predecessor, the renowned MIT physicist Ernest Moniz. And until January 2017, Perry sat on the board of the natural gas firm that is building the highly controversial Dakota Access Pipeline.
Perry’s conservative pipe dreams are already impacting the Department of Energy. Politico recently reported that the DOE Climate Office was quietly banned from using the phrase “climate change.” DOE denies this leaked policy change, but in the same period Perry found time to write an op-ed proclaiming without evidence that the election of the first openly gay student body president at his alma mater, Texas A&M, represents discrimination against heterosexual white men. Meanwhile, a coalition of several states, including California, are poised to sue the Trump administration over the DOE’s recent rollback of Obama-era energy efficiency standards. Welcome to Perry’s first weeks as secretary of energy; this depravity is just the beginning.
In fairness to Perry, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic. Despite his close ties to the fossil fuel industry, wind energy production was vastly expanded in Texas during his time as governor, indicating a potential open-mindedness to renewable technology. The secretary claims that he did his homework, and he said in his Senate confirmation hearing that he no longer believes the DOE should be abolished (phew!). And in terms of UC Berkeley, the University of California shares power with the DOE over research at Berkeley Lab, so at least we know that UC administrators and scientists will likely be close to changes where they occur. These small comforts certainly do not give me confidence in Perry’s ability to lead the Department of Energy, but they should be acknowledged.
American scientists — at UC Berkeley and elsewhere — are preparing for the worst. Just before Trump took office, researchers across the country participated in the Data Refuge Project to preserve data that may be destroyed under the new administration. This is an admirable effort, and it should be replicated as often as possible. But the new administration is here; the challenges scientists face are no longer problems of contingency, but of basic survival.
I am not a scientist, and my knowledge of how Berkeley Lab is managed and funded is admittedly limited. I’ll even concede that the situation at Berkeley Lab could be far less dire than I fear. What worries me is that the scientists who could be muzzled or otherwise affected by Perry and Trump’s policies have very little power to speak out. Because of the highly secretive nature of many Berkeley Lab research projects coupled with the threat of retaliation for criticizing the officials who sign their grant checks, scientists are in a position of astonishing weakness.
The University of California must to pay close attention to what Perry tries to do with critical Department of Energy research. We need to provide a platform for scientists to securely express concerns, and exhaust every resource to maintain funding for important projects that may be cut for brazenly political reasons. We should give Perry the benefit of the doubt, and not an inch more.
If you are a scientist who has been silenced or threatened with political budget cuts, please contact our California senators, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. Consider participating in the March for Science in San Francisco on Saturday. Document everything, and be extremely cautious. We can’t sit idly by while an unqualified ideologue rolls back the immense scientific progress you have made.
Justin Beirold is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley studying political economy, technology and development.