Science under Trump – the future for American scientists

Given Donald Trump’s seeming indifference to facts, it is no surprise that his support within the scientific community was low during the U.S. presidential campaign. […]

Given Donald Trump’s seeming indifference to facts, it is no surprise that his support within the scientific community was low during the U.S. presidential campaign. For example, Trump’s scepticism about climate change and tweets about a link between vaccinations and autism despite overwhelming evidence against those positions is troubling to many. Nathaniel Comfort, Professor at John Hopkin’s Department of the History of Medicine, articulated the concern in a recent Nature article: “Reason itself is under fire. This mistrust of expertise is a serious threat to the sciences and the humanities”.

On Donald Trump’s official website, you can read about his proposed policies. But his positions on science are mostly lacking, making it difficult to predict what the next four years will bring for American scientists. A few issues such as climate change and space exploration did come up during the campaign and Trump’s views on these issues may provide a clue to his scientific priorities during his presidency.

Climate Change
Both Trump and his Vice President to-be, Mike Pence, have expressed scepticism about the science behind climate change. The website did a survey of each of the presidential candidates’ views of a number of scientific issues. When asked about his views on climate change, Trump responded that “There is still much that needs to be investigated in the field of “climate change”” and during his campaign, Trump famously tweeted that “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive”.

For those who had hoped that Trump would moderate his views on the climate question once elected, his recent appointment of Myron Ebell to lead the transition team of the Environmental Protection Agency was disappointing news. Ebell is a climate change sceptic and was labelled one of the “climate criminals” by activists during the Paris Climate Talks last year.

While the United States cannot formally withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, it is still bad news for the climate as they are unlikely to prioritise reducing greenhouse gas emissions over Trump’s ‘America First Energy Plan’, which involves making America energy independent by lifting restrictions on shale, oil, natural gas and coal production. In Trump’s ‘contract with the American voter’ he also promised to cancel payments to UN climate change programs.

Trump’s win may be better news for space exploration. While Trump has remained silent on many scientific issues, space became a topic in the last weeks of his campaign. Addressing a ‘ScienceDebate’ question on national goals for space exploration, Trump stated: “A strong space program will encourage our children to seek STEM educational outcomes and will bring millions of jobs and trillions of dollars in investment to this country”.

While Trump himself has not revealed much in terms of actual plans for space, his space policy advisors former Congressman Robert Walker and business professor Peter Navarro wrote an op-ed in ‘Space News’ in which they proposed that NASA should focus on ‘deep space’ science rather than earth science going forward and that NASA should have a goal of ‘human exploration of the solar system by the end of the century’. They suggest that “public-private partnerships” should be the foundation of the Trump administration’s space efforts.

So far, Donald Trump has largely remained silent on issues of health science and biomedical research. The National Institute of Health Research (NIH), the largest funder of biomedical research in the world, has historically benefitted from bipartisan support, but in a radio interview last year, Trump said “I hear so much about the NIH and it’s terrible.” However, former conservative congressman Newt Gingrich, who is part of Trump’s inner circle, is a strong supporter of the NIH and last year called on congress to double the NIH budget.

In his second term, Obama has funded specific health research programs such as the BRAIN initiative, Precision Medicine Initiative and Cancer Moonshot. It is not clear what the future of these programs will look like under a Trump presidency. Obama also lifted the ban on Embryonic stem cell research instituted by George W. Bush. Vice president-elect Mike Pence has strongly opposed embryonic stem cell research and may push to reinstitute the restrictions.

In the ‘Science Debate’ interview, Trump did say that “dedicated investment in making the world a healthier place” is a priority, so we will have to wait until the new administration makes their position clear to see what a Trump presidency will mean for biomedical research.

About Frida Printzlau

Frida Printzlau is studying for a DPhil in interdisciplinary biosciences.