Science and politics collide at the linear accelerator: Trump science budget will mothball my synchrotron facility
You might not be surprised that Trump’s policies have an anti-science flare. But the president’s budget hit home for me with the planned closure of the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory (SSRL). Since January (see post below), I have been conducting experiments there. If the facility closes, I’ll lose access to a powerful tool to help me understand the how plants take up contaminants from soils. But there is much to be lost beyond my own research. I’m there along with a dizzying array of scientists, engineers, artist historians, and others who rely on the facility to gather molecular-scale information not possible with other means.
With this potential catastrophic closure looming on the horizon, synchrotron users have been dunked in the cold water tank of political realities. DOE staff organized briefings, visits were paid to local offices, harried congressional staffers took our calls.
And yet I felt conflicted. I felt strange, selfish even, advocating to keep my research facility open while I could have been using that valuable, fleeting Congressional direct line connection to advocate for any number of issues with potentially more obvious and serious impacts: single payer healthcare, funding research on climate change, resisting the Muslim ban, and now, keeping DACA – a program benefitting many students possibly including my own interns.
In a demonstrable way, though, advocating for this research facility is advocating for broad priorities beyond my personal research needs. Synchrotrons are diverse. A “user facility” means that people from all over the world come spend a few 24-hr days running experiments on a range of topics wide enough to appeal to conservatives, liberals, and leftists. Nuclear weapons stockpile management? Check. Nuclear waste disposal? Check. Understanding mechanisms behind rare disease? Check. Sustainable environmental remediation? Got it. Delving into the toxicity of lead contaminated soils? Coming right up.
The public money we’re fighting for can’t be replaced by public-private partnerships, foundations, and corporate spending. These other sources don’t provide enough funding, don’t provide it consistently, and can produce biased results, as is known to happen in clinical drug studies. Fundamental science research is a public good, whereas chipping away at this funding represent the same privatizing of the commons we see regarding public lands, public schools, and reflected in the Wall Street ties seen the highest levels of federal government (Goldman Sachs, anyone?). While Congress ultimately controls purse-strings, presidential budgets signal priorities. In promoting the closure of SSRL, Trump signals an anti-science, anti-commons, and ultimately pro-capital, anti-democracy core. The March for Science might not be the only time scientists take to the streets.
Sarick Matzen completed his PhD in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management department at University of California, Berkeley in 2020. He is now a postdoc in the Soil, Water, and Climate Department at the University of Minnesota working on iron cycling in marine systems.