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Everyday science

Everyday science

American angst

17 Nov 2016 Matin Durrani
Phot of Capital building in Wasington DC

By Matin Durrani

Like many people, I’m fearful of the imminent Donald Trump presidency, given the many sexist, racist and otherwise unpleasant remarks he made during the US election campaign. However, his slogan – “Make America great again” – proved powerfully effective for many voters. Who, after all, could disagree with renewed domestic glory? Sadly, Trump’s plans for achieving that goal – what little we know of them – are based on such ill-informed and ignorant views that he could damage America’s long-standing leadership in many areas, including science.

That scientific strength is typified by the US-based LIGO collaboration’s recent detection of gravitational waves, which was built on years of support from the National Science Foundation, helped by vibrant, international partnerships. We have no idea of the new administration’s stance on such projects, but Trump’s statements suggest someone keener on building walls rather than bridges with other nations. During the campaign, he said almost nothing on science and innovation – and once claimed climate change is a hoax.

That view alone is enough to show that a Trump administration will not be “business as usual”. Nevertheless, US scientific societies will have to find a way to work with his administration and an adversarial approach could well backfire. Striding the line between co-operation and confrontation will be tricky, as the American Physical Society has already found to its cost after it issued a press release on Trump’s appointment that it then retracted following complaints from the community. It apologized for the release, which it said was a “regrettable mistake”.

Perhaps Trump will water down his most extreme plans. Perhaps if he’s given the freedom to blunder around, he’ll soon find his ideas won’t work and face resistance from other Republicans (although probably not the hardliners that make up his initial coterie of advisers). Somehow, US scientists will have to tell Trump why science is important. But they face a very uncertain future.

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