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Trump election shock threatens US science

09 Nov 2016
Clean sweep: Donald Trump will benefit from the Republican party controlling both the US House and Senate

Republican-candidate Donald Trump’s surprising US presidential victory this morning presents a significant conundrum to the American scientific community. The community has largely supported the Democratic agenda of Hillary Clinton, who declared: “I believe in science.” Trump, in contrast, has called climate change a hoax devised by the Chinese to embarrass the US, has threatened to depart from the Paris agreement on climate change, and has promised to cut back on government regulations that encourage renewable-energy technologies. He has also pledged to bring back the coal industry.

Despite those comments, president-elect Trump’s campaign paid little attention to scientific issues. He did talk of a “commitment to invest in science, engineering, healthcare, and other areas that will make the lives of Americans better, safer, and more prosperous”. He also called for programmes, “such as a viable space effort and institutional research, that serve as incubators to innovation as well as for the advancement of science and engineering in a number of fields”. However, the campaign laid out few concrete examples of a science policy and did not release a list of individuals responsible for science policy.

Checks and balances

The presidency is, though, just one facet of US governance, which incorporates “checks and balances” on executive powers. The American constitution requires the House of Representatives to authorize federal spending, while the Senate must agree to that spending and approve major government appointments, such as the president’s cabinet members and judges.

For the past six years, president Barack Obama has had to deal with Republican majorities in both House and Senate. That American version of cohabitation significantly reduced his ability to carry out his agenda; it also created political deadlock that briefly closed down government operations and reduced the pace of legislation to a crawl.

Republican control

When he takes office in January, however, president Trump will have the advantage that the Republicans control both houses of the legislature. Since a large majority of Republicans in office have denied the connection between human activity and climate change, American participation in efforts to reduce global warming appears doomed. The party’s manifesto also calls for significant cutbacks in support for the Environmental Protection Agency.

That could slash its regulations on fossil fuels and overturn its emphasis on renewable-energy sources. The Obama administration’s proposed financial-year (FY) 2017 budget for the Department of Energy’s programmes on energy efficiency and renewable energy increased by 40% over the FY 2016 figure. That increase now seems moot. On the other hand, Trump has expressed his interest in supporting space travel, which looks positive for NASA’s budget.

Republican domination of government promises other areas of impact. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who heads the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, has frequently taken the National Science Foundation (NSF) to task for its support of sociological science projects. The agency could lose funding for such research, although its support of hard science should survive.

Lost allies

The scientific enterprise may also suffer from the loss of two long-serving Senate Democrats who did not run for re-election: Maryland’s Barbara Mikulski, who has been a strong backer of NASA and other scientific agencies, and Barbara Boxer of California, a powerful supporter of environmental efforts. Even though they were in the minority in government, they had strong influence on decisions. Their successors are both Democrats, but they will lack the power that Mikulski and Boxer had obtained through their political longevity.

President-elect Trump will not necessarily have an easy ride with Congress. Throughout the election campaign he disagreed with several Republican congressional leaders, most notably House of Representatives speaker Paul Ryan. Those disagreements focused on immigration, global trade and the treatment of minorities. But arguments over priorities could wash over into scientific areas.

The transition to president Trump comes at a time when the government-sponsored spending on R&D as a share of the overall R&D funding has fallen. Estimates from the NSF’s Center for Science and Engineering Statistics indicate that business spending represented 69% of the $499bn that the country spent in FY 2015, while the government’s share was 23%, a record low. However, analysts see some indication that the government percentage might have increases in FY 2016, which ended on 30 September.

Advice for the president

As for how president Trump should deal with scientific issues, a report by Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy – headed by the physicist and former presidential science-adviser Neal Lane – recommends a series of actions related to the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) that the science adviser heads.

The report calls on the president to choose – soon – a nationally respected scientist or engineer as science adviser and to nominate him or her to head OSTP; to direct the presidential personnel office to seek the science-adviser’s advice on filling senior positions in government agencies related to science and technology; and to consult with the science adviser “to quickly appoint a diverse membership” for the President’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology, and regularly meet with that group.

Whether Donald Trump will take that advice remains to be seen.

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