Donald Trump will be the nation’s next president, the shocking conclusion to a long and divisive campaign in which science was barely mentioned.
“There’s a fear that the scientific infrastructure in the U.S. is going to be on its knees,” said Robin Bell, a geophysicist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University and incoming president-elect of the American Geophysical Union. “Everything from funding to being able to attract the global leaders we need to do basic science research.”
Chief among many scientists’ concerns is Trump’s stance on climate change. As a candidate, Trump vowed to “cancel” the Paris climate agreement that was signed earlier this year and pledged to eliminate environmental regulations. In his response to a question about climate change from ScienceDebate.org, a nonpartisan coalition of science and engineering organizations that advocates for a debate devoted to major issues in science, he wrote “there is still much that needs to be investigated in the field of ‘climate change.’ ”
“It doesn’t look like it’s going to be great,” said Joshua Drew, a lecturer in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology at Columbia University. “The class I’m teaching right now is coastal and estuarine ecology, and we cover a lot of topics including global climate change, sea level rise, ocean acidification. The fact that Trump doesn’t believe in that does not bode well toward having a U.S. policy that addresses those issues.”
An open letter to his students that Drew posted on Twitter quickly made the rounds among scientists on the social network Wednesday morning. In the note, he urged his students to come to class and focus on their research, regardless of their feelings about the election.
“The seniors in my class are graduating with degrees in ecology in an environment that is incredibly unfriendly toward ecology,” Drew said. “They are going to have to work doubly hard to make sure their science is impeccable, that they can communicate it.”
Several researchers told The Washington Post that Trump’s climate change skepticism makes them nervous about how he will view other science in other fields.
“There is real concern in the community what it might mean, given that it’s not clear that the public scientific method is embraced by Trump,” Bell said.
Funding for research
Although Trump has pledged to cut federal spending, he hasn’t offered details on how this will affect funding for scientific research. The majority of academic researchers rely on grants from government agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.
Last year, Trump told conservative radio host Michael Savage, “I hear so much about the NIH, and it’s terrible.”
Historically, funding for these agencies has actually been higher under Republican administrations. A 2015 study in the Journal of Science Policy and Governance found that Democratic control of the government was associated with increased spending on NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation but decreased spending on the NIH, NSF and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But Trump has not been a conventional Republican candidate, and he seems unlikely to be a conventional president.
“I just feel like there’s so much uncertainty,” said Meghan Duffy, a disease ecologist at the University of Michigan. “I have tenure, so if I have a gap between grants, it wouldn’t be disastrous. But I know a lot of people who are earlier in their careers and are really worried about what it means for funding right now . . . about what a reduction in funding would mean for their ability to have a career as a scientist.”
Trump has expressed support for space research. In a response to ScienceDebate.org, he wrote that space exploration will promote interest in STEM and bring jobs and investment to the country. “Observation from space and exploring beyond our own space neighborhood should be priorities,” he said.
But he also slammed NASA during a town hall in Daytona Beach, Fla., in August, saying it was like the space program of “a third-world nation.” And he has suggested that funding for space exploration would take a back seat to other concerns.
‘We know very little’
Leighton Ku, a professor of health policy and management at George Washington University, cautioned that it’s difficult to know what effect a Trump administration will have on science until he takes office. Most of the decisions about funding and research direction come from Congress and the heads of government agencies, and Trump has offered few hints as to whom he might appoint to the latter group.
A candidate’s advisers “typically define who you think would be the next secretary of Health and Human Services” and other federal agencies, Ku said. “It’s less clear who his advisers are in the health area, it’s less clear what his priorities have been, therefore that is not as apparent” what his administration might do.
That Trump’s policies on research are still up in the air has researchers cautiously optimistic.
“We know very little, and that’s why we’re eager and willing to work with the Trump administration,” Howard Kurtzman, acting executive director for science at the American Psychological Association. He added that the APA is hopeful it can work with Trump on improving mental health resources for veterans, although he is still “troubled by [Trump’s] rejection of the scientific consensus on climate change and his repetition of the debunked suggestion that vaccines cause autism.”
The American Association for the Advancement of Science — the country’s largest society of scientific researchers — urged the president-elect to appoint “a respected scientist” as his next science adviser; make major scientific issues, such as climate change and investment in research, a central part of his agenda; and avoid budget fights that delay funding for research agencies.
“We stand ready to work with the president-elect’s administration and Republican as well as Democratic policymakers in a bipartisan fashion to harness the power of science and technology in service of society,” said AAAS chief executive Rush Holt.
It’s also not clear how Trump’s immigration policies — a central pillar of his campaign — might affect research. Ku said it’s likely that the kinds of highly-skilled scientists who immigrate to the United States for school or work would still be welcome. But will they want to come?
“I can see someone saying, ’Gee, do I really want to go to the U.S. if I think this is an environment that might not be friendly to immigrants?” Ku said.