APS News

Science in the Trump Administration

By Rachel Gaal

On Sunday night, November 14, CBS broadcast an exclusive interview with President-Elect Donald Trump to millions of American homes. The one-on-one segment with correspondent Lesley Stahl featured an array of questions on various topics, which Trump had no qualms about answering.

"I want to focus on jobs, I want to focus on healthcare, and I want to focus on the border and immigration," Trump said. "We want to have a great immigration bill, and I want to focus on all of these other things that we’ve been talking about."

But in all of the discussions with the president-elect, science and science policy have come up rarely if at all.

As the media exploded this election with hot topics like immigration, health-care reform, and tax spending, one topic in particular was missing from the stump speeches — science and technology. ScienceInsider reported "almost no interaction" between the science community and the campaign over the election season, and researchers and analysts are now scrambling to fill in the blanks.

Scores of sources are attempting to predict whom Trump and his transition team will appoint to the science-related leadership positions in the federal government. With no major statement on his campaign page that explains his plans for science, even the experts are empty-handed in predicting the future of research and development in the coming years.

"For all the professors, students, and teachers out there right now, I think you would have to mark this as an ‘incomplete’ right now," mentioned Bart Gordon, former chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology. He was speaking to people involved in academia, private sector groups, government, and biotech research, all participating live in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) webinar, S&T Policy and R&D Funding: A Post-Election Analysis.

Gordon and three other policy experts, the AAAS Chief Executive Officer Rush Holt and Chief Operating Officer Celeste Rohlfing, along with David Goldston, former chief of staff of the House Committee on Science, participated in the one-hour webinar and answered questions from the audience.

"This is a work in progress right now and we’re going to have to follow it," continued Gordon. The policy group all agreed, and were eager to add their thoughts to the discussion.

"[But] science and engineering do not go away just because there is a change in administration," asserted Rohlfing. "And with respect to some of the initiatives started under President Obama, some … are reshaped, … some are definitely ended, but … I would expect [some] to survive in one way or another into the future."

Initiatives related to climate change, including the Clean Energy Investment Initiative and the National Climate Assessment, face stronger political headwinds; Trump’s plan to cancel billions in payments to U.N. climate change programs and instead use the money to fix America’s water and environmental infrastructure is likely based on his statement in sciencedebate.org that "There is still much that needs to be investigated in the field of ‘climate change.’" In social media venues, Trump has stated his belief that human-caused climate change is a "hoax," however in a recent New York Times interview he said that there is "some connectivity" between climate change and human activity.

Funding for climate research may end up shrinking or being left for private funders to pick up, given that the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Myron Ebell will head Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) transition team. The future of EPA is uncertain, and there is related concern about Ebell’s intentions if he serves in the administration. A C-Span interview back in August 2015 featured Ebell asking for more funding for coal companies to "combat the nonsense put out by the environmental movement."

For other areas of science, and especially the physical sciences, it is hard to estimate where things are headed. The Trump campaign did not respond to APS’ five questions on topics of interest to the physics community in September 2016. And the APS Physics Policy Committee is now preparing a "transition document" with a list of science policy recommendations for the new administration.

Pieces of the NASA puzzle are slowly fitting together, with Trump’s recent announcement that Christopher Shank will head the transition in space activity. Known as an "insider" to space agencies, Shank worked for NASA between 2005 and 2009, where he was responsible for the agencies’ budget and strategic communications. This choice comes to a relief for many worried about Trump’s plans to shift NASA research away from earth science research to space exploration. Bob Walker, a senior Trump campaign advisor, told The Guardian that "Earth-centric science is better placed at other agencies where it is their prime mission."

Among other clues are Trump’s statements in Aerospace America’s "10 Questions for the Candidates", where he asserted his priority is "to restore a strong economic base" to the country. "Then, we can have a discussion about spending… [And] we can take a look at the timeline for sending more people into space," he told Aerospace America.

Spending as a whole for R&D covers much more than space exploration — scores of government funding agencies supply money for the biological, geological, and technology-driven research, to name a few.

"I think there [are] a couple of things to keep in mind," commented Goldston during the AAAS webinar. "In terms of budget, the greatest determining factor in the size of research spending is what happens to [the] budget for domestic spending as a whole."

The settled budget for Fiscal Year 2017 tops out at just over $4 trillion, with over half allocated for mandatory spending, and about $1.2 trillion left over for discretionary costs. Trump’s "Penny Plan" to shrink all non-defense discretionary spending by one percent per year, as opposed to letting the whole budget grow roughly with inflation, could likewise force federal R&D spending to shrink in relation to defense budgets. Over half of the discretionary budget goes to military funding, and the rest must pay for all other domestic projects. The resulting effect on funding for federal science agencies has become a hot topic among young researchers concerned about their future grant proposals.

"Grants from scientific funding agencies, such as NSF, tend to be three to five years in duration, so any effect, especially a decrease, will be spread out over several years," assured Rohlfing during the AAAS webinar.

Holt added, "I think it depends how soon the administration appoints a science advisor and what kind of portfolio they are given." He has urged Trump to "appoint a respected scientist or engineer" as the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) for immediate input on decision-making in his early administration. The AAAS recently teamed up with the leaders of 29 U.S. scientific and higher education organizations, including APS, to formally ask the President-elect to "quickly appoint a nationally respected leader with appropriate engineering, scientific, management and policy skills to serve as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology", and requested a meeting to suggest candidates to fill the role.

Besides a statement reported by ScienceDebate.org that Trump wants to commit to "invest[ing] in science, engineering, health care, and other areas," there is little evidence to gauge Trump’s plans for pushing forward with science R&D that is federally funded.

The American Institute of Physics (AIP) science policy bulletin, FYI, is also involved in post-election analysis. Mike Henry (the director of science policy for AIP) and his team of policy analysts are looking back on the roles of past OSTP directors to best assess what the science advisor’s role will look like:

"Beginning with Franklin Roosevelt, who was advised by Vannevar Bush, every president has had a science advisor," Henry told APS News. "Since 1976, the advisor has also served as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Whether Trump continues this long presidential tradition and elevates the role of science in the nation's governance remains to be seen. … A big question is whether this will change when Trump is in office and would benefit from the counsel of scientists."

Some notable advocates of R&D, like Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Representative Mike Honda (D-CA), will not be returning after the lame-duck session concludes. Mikulski announced her retirement at the beginning of the fiscal year 2016, while Honda lost his re-election bid, and now their positions on the committees that appropriate science funding are up for grabs.

"It really is important how an administration is populated, not only at the cabinet level … but at some of the less visible levels," Goldston added. "[Trump has] 4000 appointments he can make … those people really make a difference."

Holt pushed the webinar audience to participate and get involved. "The current transition is an excellent opportunity for young scientists and engineers to engage now with the public and many different audiences, to explain the work you do, and why it’s important for expanding human knowledge and improving people's lives," he stated at the beginning of the webinar.

For now, many questions will remain unanswered until Trump and his team publicly announce their appointments.

Additional Resources

Gray Arrow The AAAS webinar is archived online
Gray Arrow AIP’s Federal Science Budget Tracker
Gray Arrow APS Office of Public Affairs

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Rachel Gaal
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik