In ‘Donald Trump, PhD,’ Scientists Find Catharsis Amid Gags

July 06, 2016

If Donald J. Trump were in the sciences he would build a big, beautiful publisher paywall, create more faculty jobs on American soil, and of course, make science great again. Or so jokes the parody Twitter account "Donald Trump, PhD," which imagines how the presumptive Republican nominee for president would apply his rhetoric to reforming the sciences.

Emilio M. Bruna, a professor of wildlife ecology and Latin American studies at the University of Florida, is the man behind the account. Unlike the candidate he is parodying, Mr. Bruna said he isn’t seeking elective office, just laughs. He started the account for fun after chatting on Twitter with another scientist about papers coming back with calls for major revisions. Someone cracked a joke about what the presidential candidate would do if he were the editor of a scientific journal, and inspiration struck.

Mr. Bruna said he’s not thinking too hard about the jokes. He’s got that part down to a science — namely, a copy-and-paste job that takes Mr. Trump’s real tweets and simply replaces words like "Benghazi" with "National Science Foundation," Mr. Bruna said.

"It was just a fun way to procrastinate and blow off steam," Mr. Bruna said.

Shortly after opening the account, Mr. Bruna realized the Twitter feed was an opportunity to talk about subjects scientists cared about: diversity, funding levels, and sexual harassment in the workplace.

"If we tend to think of Trump as kind of a retrograde candidate, well then, what are things that Trump would be for if he were a scientist?" Mr. Bruna said.

The account, @ScientistTrump, had nearly 3,000 followers as of Tuesday, just two days after debuting. The account has fun at the candidate’s expense, but it has also become a sly way to bring up topics important to the scientific community, Mr. Bruna said. Neither Mr. Trump nor the general electorate are talking much about science, research, and education, Mr. Bruna said, and this is a chance to bring up the issues that are often forgotten.

Joshua A. Drew, a lecturer in conservation biology at Columbia University and an early follower of @ScientistTrump, said part of the account’s draw is its ability to make fun of Mr. Trump while bringing up uncomfortable topics in academe.

The account has already played off Mr. Trump’s relationship with the female electorate, and Mr. Drew said the academic jokes also create a way for people to discuss sexual harassment of women by senior officials in the workplace. "It’s important to have those conversations straight up, but humor allows us to have those conversations in ways that aren’t as intense," Mr. Drew said. "Maybe people who aren’t quite ready to start talking about the problem of sexual harassment in STEM fields straight up, maybe they can come in through this somewhat humorous way."

While the account brings up serious issues, the Trump parody wouldn’t be complete without calling out specific people by name. Stephanie Coen, a geography Ph.D. candidate at Queen’s University, in Canada, was singled out by @ScientistTrump after she commented on a tweet casting social scientists as losers. Soon after, a similarly styled parody account, "Hillary Clinton, PhD," invited Ms. Coen to pledge her support to the presumptive Democratic nominee instead. (That account, started on Monday, had fewer than two dozen followers by Tuesday evening.)

Both accounts point out the parallels between academe and politics, Ms. Coen said.

"Trump’s politics of division and singling out winners and losers, we definitely have that in academia," Ms. Coen said. "We tend to think of certain camps and disciplines as having more advantages."

Mr. Trump’s divisive tactics also echo the split between the hard sciences and social sciences and the different ways universities and the public treat faculty members in the different subject areas, she said.

The tweets don’t merely provide comic relief, Ms. Coen said; they also point out how contentious academics can be with one another.

When debates about open access are played out in Trumpian fashion, she said, it allows academics to take a break from the serious dialogue.

"There’s something about connecting those discussions," Ms. Coen said. "It brings a much-needed laugh to some of the real, frightening things that we’re seeing in some of those discussions."

As the account continues to gain followers, Mr. Bruna said the toughest part won’t be coming up with new jokes. His greatest challenge is making sure the account doesn’t minimize serious issues in academe and during the election.

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz is a web writer. Follow her on Twitter @FernandaZamudio, or email her at fzamudiosuarez@chronicle.com.