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Peaceful Protests in the Plaza

Gag orders, spending and hiring freezes, unsettling questionnaires, an immigration ban: Such are the actions taken by the Trump administration in their first few weeks in office. It seems the nation is sent reeling by some new, controversial action every single day, and the scientific community has been especially hard hit. 
    In this climate of censure, the issue of intellectual freedom has become increasingly important. Some effects are obvious; an administration which is opposed to environmental regulation is unlikely to financially support fundamental climate and ecological research. If you are funded by the DoE, the EPA, or NASA (or had hoped to work for someone who is after graduation) you will find your prospects are limited. There are students at Tech who have already lost graduate funding to the spending freeze, and had job offers rescinded by institutions which can no longer hire new talent. Other effects are more subtle. Labs that want to stay funded may choose to pivot into less “controversial” work, or to recast the same work in more politically expedient language. Academics spooked by the climate change inquisition may be less likely to speak their minds, or to attend conferences and publish work that mark them as potential targets. 
    The Trump administration’s habit of preposterously lying to the press and insisting on “alternative facts” draws strong parallels with 1984 style fascism. To scientists, this pattern is troubling. As Dr. Richard Sonnenfeld put it, “We can disagree; Politics is about what you do with the same facts. You have a different world view, you think different things are important, that’s fine. There’s a famous politician who said, ‘You’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.’ As scientists, we teach the use of facts, our job is to discover facts, right, and so we’re particularly horrified by any politician who doesn’t seem to have a lot of respect for reality. Scientists have a responsibility, and we’re still respected. There is an attempt to discredit science, and to discredit intellectuals, and that’s exactly how you know you’ve got a fascist.”
            Judging by the peace rally on Friday, Dr. Sonnenfeld is not alone in that sentiment. Over 50 protesters showed up, including many faculty and staff. The same peace rally has been staged every Friday for over 20 years, but usually is only attended by a couple of locals. Many carried signs with phrases like “Muslims are our friends”, “Jesus was an Egyptian immigrant”, and “I will not accept the things I cannot change – I will change the things I cannot accept”. 
    Many of Trump’s executive orders seem to have been written without consultation with experts or supposed collaborators, and indeed without much guidance for how such orders should be carried out. The immigration ban is a case in point; in the chaos following its signing, it was completely unclear if it applied to permanent residents and dual citizens, or whether existing visas would be honored. Within hours its legality was challenged, and last week the order was temporarily frozen pending judicial review. It’s anyone’s guess what the coming months will bring.
    Here at Tech we are lucky to count among us hundreds of international students, faculty, and staff, hailing from nations all around the world. As we are a research university, this is hardly surprising; approximately a quarter of STEM workers in the US are foreign born. Dozens of our students are from one of the seven countries targeted by the ban, and many more are afraid of what this may indicate about the future. “I was going to go home over spring break, but now I feel that I can’t risk it. It’s so insane, I can’t believe this is actually happening.”
    President Wells was quick to issue a statement addressing their concerns directly. In it he recommended that international students always carry their documentation, avoid the border, and use caution when planning trips out of the country. According to Michael Voegerl of the Office of International Programs, this is advice they have long given international students. “The chances of anyone ever asking for their papers are zero to none, but it’s best to be prepared.” 
    Dr. Wells closed with this sentiment: “We remain committed to respecting and honoring the dignity of each individual, embracing civil discourse, and fostering a diverse and inclusive community. We recognize and believe strongly that the diversity of faculty, staff and students enriches all of us and enables our mission.” I couldn’t have said it better. 
 

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