Science on the Ballot
In a normal presidential election year, analysis of the role of science in the presidential campaign might focus on the nuances of the candidates’ competing priorities for the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and other federal scientific agencies. Nanoscience versus neuroscience, say, the moon versus Mars.
This is clearly not a normal election year.
Former vice president Joe Biden’s plans and President Donald Trump’s records on research funding are a part of the picture, of course, and of utmost importance to many academics and higher education leaders. But many scientists believe a more fundamental issue — respect for science in government — is at stake in this election.
Trump’s continued efforts to downplay the severity of the pandemic, seen most recently in the wake of his own COVID-19 diagnosis, his rejection of public health guidance — including, perhaps most consequentially, his mockery and failure of role modeling when it comes to face masks — and reported efforts by his administration to interfere in scientific decision making in the nation’s public health agencies and sideline experts have raised alarms among scientists and many others. Scientists have criticized the president for rejecting scientific and other forms of expertise, including by forcing out or muzzling government-employed scientists and by eliminating many advisory committees comprised of outside experts.
Opposition to Trump’s policies among scientists started early in his term when many of them joined the inaugural March for Science events held on Earth Day in 2017. Although the march was nonpartisan in nature, many participants were deeply concerned by Trump’s scientific policies on science. Those concerns have grown substantially since then.
The magazine Scientific American recently endorsed Biden despite never before having backed a candidate in its 175-year history.
“The evidence and the science show that Donald Trump has badly damaged the U.S. and its people — because he rejects evidence and science,” the editors wrote in an editorial. “The most devastating example is his dishonest and inept response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which cost more than 190,000 Americans their lives by the middle of September. [The figure is now more than 215,000.] He has also attacked environmental protections, medical care, and the researchers and public science agencies that help this country prepare for its greatest challenges.”
Similarly, The New England Journal of Medicine took a step unprecedented in its 208-year history of condemning one candidate and endorsing, at least by implication, another.
“When it comes to the response to the largest public health crisis of our time, our current political leaders have demonstrated that they are dangerously incompetent,” the NEJM editors wrote in an editorial published last week that mentions neither Trump nor Biden by name. “We should not abet them and enable the deaths of thousands more Americans by allowing them to keep their jobs.”
“The administration and the president in particular have undermined science every opportunity that they’ve had,” said Holden Thorp, the editor in chief of Science and author of a scathing Sept. 18 editorial, “Trump Lied About Science,” condemning Trump for intentionally misleading the American public about the severity of the pandemic in February. Trump has maintained that he downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic to prevent a public panic.
Thorp noted that Trump has consistently proposed sizable cuts to science funding.
“Thankfully, folks in the Congress don’t agree with him about that, and we’ve had good increases in science funding over the last few years, but that’s not something that the president deserves any credit for,” Thorp said.
Thorp added that Trump’s rhetoric “has undermined everything that science has said except when he wants to use it for his purposes.”
The Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University and the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund jointly maintain the Silencing Science tracker, which keeps a running tally of instances of federal and state government attempts to censor or otherwise inhibit scientific processes or the use of scientific information since the 2016 election.
“Whenever there is a scientific finding that runs counter to the administration’s objectives such as encouraging fossil fuel use or diminishing the dangers of the virus, they work hard to squelch it. It’s an ostrich administration,” said Michael B. Gerrard, the Andrew Sabin Professor of Professional Practice at Columbia Law School and director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.
Gerrard said he would expect a “dramatic change” should Biden win the election.
“For one thing, Biden embraces the science of climate change and of other environmental hazards and the virus,” Gerrard said. “It would be a 180-degree reversal, just as Trump completely reversed from Obama’s policies. Obama had serious scientists in his administration and he listened to them. I would expect we’d see that kind of thing again.”
The Biden campaign did not respond to requests for comment, but the former vice president has said he would “listen to the scientists” to control the coronavirus pandemic and has implored Trump to do the same.
Courtney Parella, a spokeswoman for the Trump campaign, said in a statement that Trump has worked throughout his first term to “ensure cutting-edge innovations are happening in America.”
She said the president “is fighting to put America First, encourage research and development, and reignite exploration and invention, and his Administration will continue to pave the way for science and research to flourish in the U.S.”
Federal Research Priorities
Trump has repeatedly questioned scientific consensus, as when he rejected the premise last month that climate change was a contributing factor in causing the wildfires raging in the American West, insisting instead that “It’ll start getting cooler” and saying “I don’t think science knows” what is happening.
The president has denied or downplayed the scientific evidence about the threat of climate change. His administration rolled back one of Obama’s signature climate achievements, rules that would improve fuel efficiency standards for cars — the rollback is being challenged in court — and initiated the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. His campaign website boasts that Trump “has approved the infrastructure and provided the resources needed to unleash oil and gas production in the U.S.”
Biden, meanwhile, has pledged a move toward a “100 percent clean energy economy” and net-zero emissions by 2050, and has promised “the largest-ever investment in clean energy research and innovation.” How much of his ambitious $400 billion plan he is able to accomplish will depend on the makeup of Congress after the election, but the tone toward climate science and climate change policies would undoubtedly change markedly.
In terms of other research priorities, Trump’s administration has prioritized some research areas, notably artificial intelligence and quantum information science. His most recent budget request would double research and development investments in those two areas by 2022. However, his budget proposal would also have cut the overall NSF and NIH budgets by 7 percent each, among other cuts to science.
“There have been some exceptions, but they’ve recommended cuts for most agencies every year, and many of those cuts would have been historically large,” said Matt Hourihan, director of the research and development budget and policy program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Hourihan said the Trump administration has targeted especially deep cuts to research related to renewable energy and energy efficiency, climate and other environmental research, manufacturing, agriculture, and basic science.
Biden is calling for $300 billion over four years investment in research and development and “breakthrough technologies — from electric vehicle technology to lightweight materials to 5G and artificial intelligence.”
The former vice president, who oversaw the “Cancer Moonshot” initiative in Obama’s administration and lost his son Beau to brain cancer, has pledged “billions of dollars” to seek cures for cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. He has called for establishing a new agency focused on research and development in health care modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
“We’re confident and hopeful that Vice President Biden will make cancer research and medical science a national priority if he becomes president,” said Jon Retzlaff, chief policy officer for the American Association for Cancer Research. “I think it’s accurate to say that the president has not made cancer research and medical science a national priority.”
“We have been very concerned when we’ve seen the president’s budget proposals for NIH, but we’ve been very assured by seeing the action that Congress has taken to ignore the president’s proposals and instead double down on the importance of the NIH,” Retzlaff said. Throughout Trump’s term, Congress approved steady increases in NIH funding to the tune of $2 to $3 billion per year.
Experts emphasize that funding for scientific research has enjoyed wide support in Congress from Democrats and Republicans.
“We have a lot of strong support in Congress for science and that has really saved us over the last four years,” said Phil Bucksbaum, president of the American Physical Society and the Marguerite Blake Wilbur Chair in Natural Science at Stanford University. “You can just imagine what would have happened if the president’s budgets had simply been passed into law.”
International Talent and International Tensions
Another area of concern to the scientific community involves international students and immigration policy on high-skilled workers. The Trump administration has proposed a number of policies seen by many in higher education as detrimental to international students or scholars, including a recently proposed rule that would limit the time student visa holders could stay in the U.S.
The Trump administration has also suspended entry to the U.S. for holders of H-1B skilled worker visas, a temporary route by which some foreign professors come to the U.S. and that many businesses, particularly in the technology sector, rely upon.
“The contrast couldn’t be clearer,” said Kei Koizumi, a science policy consultant and the former assistant director for federal research and development in the Obama White House. “The Trump administration has used every means possible to restrict all sorts of immigration, including the high-skilled immigration and student immigration that are so vital to the health of U.S. research institutions. The Biden campaign has not been very specific, but I get the impression that at the very least they’re going to roll back the Trump administration restrictions to where they were before.”
Among other moves, the Biden campaign says he would exempt recent foreign graduates of American Ph.D. programs in STEM fields from any cap on employment-based visas.
A related issue bound up in policies on international students and high-skilled immigration involves concerns about China and U.S. research security, an area of increasing focus across the range of federal scientific and national security and law enforcement agencies during Trump’s tenure. Experts say concerns about Chinese government efforts to exploit the relatively open environment of research universities to steal federally supported academic research are not likely to end no matter who wins the election — though the tone may shift.
“I don’t think that goes away if Biden is elected,” said Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities. “I think Democrat or Republican administration, our stance toward China is changing. It may not be quite as extreme as what we’ve seen, especially post-pandemic, with this administration trying to blame the virus on China, but the issue of China is going to be there.”
Koizumi, the former assistant director for federal research and development in the Obama White House, agreed. “It is a bipartisan concern.”
“From my vantage point, I don’t see easy answers,” Koizumi said. “What gives me more hope for a Biden administration to solve this better is that [the Trump] administration has not really weighed the evidence or tried to balance competing interests. I trust a Biden administration will reach out to and bring in expert viewpoints and information from all of these sources, whether it’s universities or the national security establishment or wherever, to really think about what should be done and how the U.S. should move forward.”
In the short term, advocates for science say a priority is securing stimulus funding to get research back up and going again after the disruptions caused by the mass shutdowns of college labs after the start of the coronavirus pandemic last spring. Labs that continued paying graduate students and postdoctoral scholars during the shutdowns need additional funds to keep them on the payroll. Advocacy groups have pointed to other costs associated with shutting down and reopening labs, including destruction of biological samples and disposal of hazardous materials, the care of animal subjects, and the costs of restarting experiments that could not be completed.
“Our ultimate concern is, if they don’t get extra money, do agencies potentially have to make a decision in fiscal year 2021 about new grants versus supporting old grants — in which case you lose yet another season of being able to start new grants,” said Debbie Altenburg, assistant vice president for research advocacy and policy at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.
The coronavirus stimulus act passed by Congress and signed by Trump last spring included $1.3 billion in funding for COVID research, but it did not include funds for extensions or supplements to existing research grants.
Congress and the White House are currently negotiating a second stimulus. The stimulus bill approved by the Democratic-controlled House includes funds for supporting costs associated with shutdowns of biomedical labs and extending existing National Science Foundation grants.
It is unclear whether there is political will in Congress and the White House to pass a stimulus act before the election. Trump said last week that he was stopping negotiations until after the election, but he subsequently reversed himself and suggested he was interested in a large-scale deal. The White House presented House Democrats with a $1.8 trillion package, substantially larger than its previous offer but still less than the $2.2 trillion package passed by the House earlier this month.
“Right now, the stimulus is sort of on-again, off-again from a negotiation perspective. We’re continuing to advocate, but that’s hard to predict,” said Jenny Luray, vice president of strategy and communications for Research!America, a membership and advocacy organization made up of universities, hospitals, businesses and industries, nonprofit groups, and others with a stake in research policy.
“That’s a really big issue and that’s one that will continue to be something that Research!America and our university members will advocate for, regardless of who wins in November.”