In USA Today, Dr. Alex Berezow and I ask what a Trump presidency might mean for science. The reason to ask is obvious; he might win.
And science is one of America’s most important strategic resources. We lead in Nobel prizes and with just five percent of earth’s population we produce over 30 percent of the world’s science.
Mr. Trump himself might insist we are going to “win, win everywhere” with “so many great achievements, so many great victories” but science doesn’t actually work that way. The real science happens after the talking stops and the real pro-science politicians are those who fund research - not the ones who call themselves Scientist-In-Chief the most.
And though the overwhelming number of government-funded scientists are Democrats, a Republican in the White House should be good news, if modern history is an indication. Because Republicans fund science more than Democrats. Trump has declared himself a fan of President Ronald Reagan, who was a strong promoter of federal involvement in science, so that would be a good thing for scientists who have had stagnant National Institutes of Health funding during the Obama administration. Reagan thought basic science research and the military were just about the only two things the federal government should fund, and it showed in his signing off on the International Space Station, the Superconducting Super Collider, the Strategic Defense Initiative, and the Hubble Telescope.
But the Superconducting Super Collider particle accelerator in Texas was so ahead of its time no one knew how to build it. The specification was more advanced than not only Europe’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) which discovered the Higgs boson in 2012, it would have been more advanced than its planned successor, the International Linear Collider, which isn’t even under construction yet. Democrats canceled the SSC program in 1993 and Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative was continually derided by opponents as “Star Wars” science-fiction before it was scuttled as well.
So there might be a lot of funding in a Trump presidency but it may not lead to anything during his administration. That happens President Bush signed off on the James Webb Space Telescope and it is so far behind schedule and so far over budget it won't even be done in the Obama administration, even though the original claim was it would be finished in 2010.
What about science topics closer to terra firma, like energy? Hillary Clinton just lost in the West Virginia primary even though she won it in 2008 by 40 points for one reason: coal. She declared it had to go, without remembering that a whole lot of Democrats in unions work in West Virginia mines. Trump has instead said the Obama administration’s war on coal has to end, but the Obama administration policy on coal may be solving a problem we no longer have, thanks to natural gas. Why boost an industry that the free market has sent into decline?
On other science and health issues, Trump has stayed relatively silent for someone who usually has an opinion on everything. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been rebuked for trying to take over all local water issues, but other than saying, “It’s a shame what’s happening in Flint, Michigan. A thing like that shouldn’t happen,” Trump hasn’t given indications of what he would do in such public health crises where local and state politicians fail their citizens. When it comes to man-made climate change, he is also lukewarm, saying, he is not a “great believer” in it and might not obey non-binding treaties.
Renewable energy has been the beneficiary of tens of billions of dollars in subsidies during the Obama administration but Trump seems more skeptical. In 2012, he was very critical of subsidized solar and in 2014 he lost a legal challenge against an offshore wind power facility – though that was because it was going to ruin the view near one of his golf resorts in Scotland. On ethanol, which is both heavily subsidized and scientifically backward, Trump has actually called for a higher mandate.
That inconsistency has to be a concern for academic scientists who rely on government funding to complete projects. Other than stating his desire to “make America great again,” Trump has failed to draft a comprehensive science policy. Some of his efforts he says will make America great could actually harm science.
American science is partially great because the world’s best and brightest move here, get an education, and become American citizens. Trump’s desire to ban Muslims would mean we don’t let some scientists move here at all. And his protectionist schemes about employment might mean we let them get their educations here but deny them work visas. So instead of turning more scientists into Americans - and maintaining our leadership - we would be forcing them to return home where they are competing against us – exactly the opposite of what Trump claims to want.
Finally, we would need to be concerned about regulatory uncertainty in a Trump administration, though that was true in the Obama administration as well. Despite what we see in movies, science is often not revolutionary, it is evolutionary – it is a slow process, and Trump's knee-jerk response to lash out at people he dislikes could create an atmosphere in which scientists are afraid to speak the truth. What would Trump do if an agency or laboratory produced a finding that he personally disliked?
We have to hope campaign rhetoric is not policy, but behavior is all we have to go by for now.