Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

How Will the Trump Administration Affect U.S. Science?

How Will the Trump Administration Affect U.S. Science?

By Dennis D. McDonald

Some Virginia history

Back when Ken Cuccinelli was Virginia’s Attorney General I watched as he used the Commonwealth’s legal muscle (and my Virginia tax dollars) to harass climate scientist Michael Mann. I was reminded of that sorry episode by Mann’s recent article in the Washington Post describing the threats he has received over the years for his research into climate change (see I’m a scientist who has gotten death threats. I fear what may happen under Trump.)

Mann’s experience is scary for two reasons.

The first is the most obvious one: government agencies can use the power and resources of government to oppose scientific research with which they disagree.

The second is subtler but just as dangerous: using government secrecy to cover up such actions.

During the Cuccinelli regime in Virginia, for example, I tried repeatedly to find out how much money the Commonwealth was spending on persecuting Mann, but to no avail. Repeated attempts to go “through channels” via both the Governor’s office and the Attorney General’s office were met with silence or statements saying such data were “not available.”

The idea of a legal department not tracking how much time was being spent on high profile politically sensitive actions seemed preposterous at the time. Eventually I received from an anonymous source an internal report describing the recent installation of a time tracking system for use by the Attorney General’s office. By then I was fed up with tilting at windmills and felt that voting in the next election would be the only real option.

The current national situation

While I’m usually a “glass half full” kind of guy, what I’ve seen so far of the incoming Trump Administration is even more worrisome. If Trump’s scientific research policies evolve the way his campaign rhetoric and his key appointments suggest, the U.S. may be entering a period that causes both short and long-term damage to worldwide U.S. scientific leadership, reputation, and competitiveness.

Climate, environmental, and energy research may be the areas that are impacted first. Research funding shifts in these areas can be impacted by executive action. Resulting reductions will have a ripple effect on education and training as graduate students and post-docs who rely on government research grants shift to other areas, begin to avoid programs that appear dependent on insecure policy-sensitive funding, or drop out entirely. Multi-institution consortia and research programs that promote collaboration and data sharing may also suffer as funds supporting, say, remote access to cloud-stored climate research data, are cut back or disappear.

Endangered: U.S. competitiveness

While the immediate impact of funding reductions in politically “sensitive” research areas could be primarily human in terms of reduced educational support, longer term problems may also emerge. "Loss of competitiveness" comes to mind when other countries push ahead in the search for commercializable non-nuclear energy resources. This could eventually translate into a loss of jobs here in the U.S. as clean energy industries nurtured abroad grow at our expense.  

Industry in the U.S. has always been at least partly dependent on publicly funded research as one of the many inputs to product development. It would be interesting to know, for example, if entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk have relied on research and patents that originated with funding by the U.S. government. Much US-funded research is, after all, published in the open literature. Also, will NOAA be forced to discontinue efforts to work with private sector cloud vendors to commercialize environmental and weather data? (See NOAA’s Big Data Project Comes Into Focus.)

Eventually the U.S. could also lose researchers and students to foreign institutions where areas of research, discouraged here, are actively encouraged. For example, if you are a top-tier incoming graduate student and are recruited by a variety of U.S. and foreign graduate programs, what happens if the foreign program offers not only financial assistance but also an opportunity to pursue a research area now discouraged by the U.S.? Where will you go?

Then, after you complete your education at such a foreign institution, where are you likely to go next? Back to the U.S. where politics are played with research funding? Or will you stay overseas and contribute to some other more welcoming country’s economy and competitiveness?

Research funding has always had a political component

It is appropriate to acknowledge here that research funding has always had a political component. This always becomes much clearer in times of war or political upheaval. Think back to the Manhattan Project or to the post-Sputnik Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) program here in the U.S.

You could make the case that we face similar threats now as authoritarian regimes rise around the world, as foreign countries pursue competitiveness with the U.S. in a variety of scientifically-dependent areas – and as the sea levels rise and threaten to flood coastal cities around the world in ways that the U.S. Military has acknowledged threaten our national security (see DOD Releases Report on Security Implications of Climate Change). Shouldn't we therefore be encouraging independent scientific research that advances our national interests?

Our challenge

Again, government research funding decisions have always had a political component. We rightfully expect our elected representatives and Federal employees to make science-related decisions both knowledgeably and with both the short and long term interests of American citizens in mind.

However, one challenge we face now is that an increasing number of senior policy makers who will be responsible for making science-related decisions at the Federal level either lack any scientific background or are openly disdainful of science. Faced with this harsh reality it is inevitable that scientists and people who believe in science must become even more political than they are now. 

Full Disclosure: The author gratefully acknowledges support provided by the United States’ National Science Foundation for funding his own dissertation research oh so many years ago.

Copyright © 2016 by Dennis D. McDonald.

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