With an archive that goes back to 1880 and a reputation for publishing world-changing research, the journal Science is the apex predator of academic publishing. Getting an article past its gatekeepers and peer reviewers can make a researcher's career; the journal's news section is a model for high-level reporting on everything from quarks to viruses to blue whales to galactic clusters. Along with its competitors Cell and Nature, the journal represents not just new knowledge but also the cultural mores of the world it coversinnovation, integrity, accuracy, rectitude, fealty to data.
So its surprising (but maybe not as much as you think) that Sciences newish editor-in-chief has focused a laser-like stream of neural energy at calling out the crummy pandemic policies of the Trump administration. H. Holden Thorp, a chemist and longtime university administrator, became editor-in-chief of Science and five other journals published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science last October, just two months before Covid-19 started spreading around the world. The hopes of a planet full of humans looking for treatments and vaccines turned quickly to scientists, and Thorps journals would have been among the places that the best, most relevant work would appear. It has, of course. But Thorp also started a crusade from Sciences editorial page, calling out the ways Donald Trump's administration has ignored, misunderstood, and misused science for political gain. Now Thorps editorial page is at the forefront of a movementwith scientists casting aside the old stereotype of apolitical disinterest. On Wednesday, even the venerable magazine Scientific American endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time in its 175-year history. (It was Joe Biden.)
Thorps most recent broadside, Trump Lied About Science, appeared last week. It was the most vigorous condemnation yet, a lightning siege of criticism over Trumps admission, to the journalist Bob Woodward, that the president knew Covid-19 was more serious than he acknowledged to the public. This page has commented on the scientific foibles of US presidents. Inadequate action on climate change and environmental degradation during both Republican and Democratic administrations have been criticized frequently, Thorp wrote. But this, he added, may be the most shameful moment in the history of US science policy.
That'd be tough stuff on any newspaper op-ed page; from a place like Science, which has in the past had a somewhat arid editorial voice, it was fire. Thorp has been activated. I asked him what did it, and how his new approach might change scienceand Science. Thorps answers are here, edited lightly for length and clarity.
WIRED: So how bad are things, really?
Thorp: If you look at the history of our journal and the editorial page, there have been times when we were at odds with the federal government. George W. Bush was, probably is, a creationistthat created a lot of heartburn for us, but he did a great job with worldwide funding for HIV. Ronald Reagan was certainly not any help on HIV, but he also did a lot to develop the science infrastructure in the United States. But none of those things ever really became the dominant story of what we were publishing in the journal and what the rest of the country and world were thinking about. And then you put the unusual and unacceptable characteristics of Donald Trump on top of that, and were in completely uncharted territory. It's pretty hopeful that in another year well have people vaccinated and well be able to go back to the way things were, but the situationboth in terms of the virus and the ways in which the administration has tried to undermine scientists and scientific researchis something weve never seen before.