Research communities search for positive signs amid science policy uncertainty.
It’s safe to say that Donald Trump’s election has blown a cold wind through the science world. Europe in particular, still reeling from Brexit, is gazing across the pond feeling increasingly uneasy. Trump has tweeted that vaccinations are linked to autism and that lightbulbs can cause cancer. More worryingly, that global warming is based on faulty science and manipulated data. This has lead to reports of scientists frantically copying climate data in case it disappears under the incoming regime.
But will it really be so bad? Trump loves business. And business and science can make great bedfellows. Research provides things you can sell. And Trump loves to sell things. The 45th President of the US is an entrepreneur, says Emma Marcegaglia, president of industry advocacy group BusinessEurope, based in Brussels. “We hope that his decisions will be driven by political and economic reason.”
Research policy uncertainty
Are scientists right to be so worried? Will Trump really be the “disaster for innovation” that an open letter of tech leaders states? It’s hard to say, because neither campaign said much about science policy or research funding before the election.
Since election day, there have been encouraging stories that veteran politician Newt Gingrich is helping out with the transition. “Gingrich is a huge NIH [National Institutes of Health] supporter and helped lead the effort in Congress to double the NIH budget between 1998 and 2003,” says Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative relations at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), in Bethesda, Maryland, USA. “He also wrote a very strong op-ed last year calling for greater investment in NIH.”
Meanwhile, for scientists working in geology, engineering and anything associated with coal, oil, gas and shale energy the outlook is undoubtedly positive. The same goes for military research, which includes the masses of IT infrastructure needed for cyber and counter-cyber warfare. In addition, engineers specialised in robotics and autonomous systems could have the glory days ahead as these fields of expertise are used to develop the drones and next-next generation stealth bombers, fighters and ships that Trump has pledged to build.
A significant proportion of this type of research is privately funded in the US. However, Zeitzer doesn’t think that this will necessarily shield the research base, particularly in health. “A lot of privately-funded research is disease-specific or very narrowly targeted,” she says. “I’m not aware of any privately-funded research foundation that has a budget of $32.1 billion annually [the total NIH fiscal year 2016 budget].”
In addition, many are troubled by Trump’s statements on climate change and environmental work, like threatening to “dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency”, or asking the US Energy Department to identify employees who have worked on climate policies. Concerned by what looks like a witch hunt? Don’t forget that running mate and future vice-president Mike Pence has expressed doubts about evolution. So could Federal funding for stem cell research be a target? These recent developments have fueled some concerns within the wider scientific community globally.
But if Trump is true to his word and the US moves away from renewables, for example, then Europe could be well placed to pick up the talent crossing the Atlantic. On 16 May 2016, Germany reached the point where nearly all of its power came from renewables. Even cloudy-rainy Britain is generating more energy from solar than coal at times. And Sweden’s policy to have 100% from renewables by 2040–and 50% by 2020–is unlikely to be derailed by the indirect influence of one–or potentially two–US presidential terms. If the US goes it alone on energy policy, expect deeper ties to be forged with researchers in Canada, Japan, Korea and China.
And if it plays out this way, could we expect scientists working in less favoured fields to head to Europe or further afield soon? “If there is another drop in US funding for research, we could see scientists leaving and heading to Europe and Asia where governments are investing in labs, clinical trials, and other kinds of biomedical research,” says Zeitzer. “Scientists need grants from NIH in order to do their research. If those grants aren’t being funded, it’s hard to sustain a career for very long.”
Some things won’t go back into the bottle
But the lurch to increase military spending, which will find support among many Senators and Representatives, may well have knock-on effects in Europe. There is already €25 million authorised in Europe for a joint pilot R&D programme. It might be distasteful to some, but war–or threats of–is the mother of all invention. And this cannot change by wishing it away.
Another consequence are mooted Trump policies aimed at US firms that have operations outside the US, that could come under political and financial pressure to move back to the US. “Some of these companies are in the EU and employ many people. If new policies mean that these R&D operations in the private sector go back to the US, this has an impact on the larger science and innovation environment in the EU,” says Stephan Kuster, head of policy affairs at science lobby group Science Europe, based in Brussels, Belgium. “We should make sure that EU remains attractive for firms to do their R&D.”
He adds that any movement of researchers would only be a short-lived gain. “If the US becomes an unattractive place to do research, that’s not good news for the EU. It means there’s been a decline in US science, that’s bad for science overall, which is a global enterprise.”
Indeed, Kuster paraphrases Subra Suresh, former director of the National Science Foundation from 2010 to 2013, who said: “good science anywhere is good for science everywhere.” Unfortunately, by extension the reverse must be true: what’s bad for science anywhere – and uniquely the US as the world’s research powerhouse – will be bad for science everywhere.
Featured image credit: Pete Linforth via Pixabay
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