What will a Trump administration mean for scientific research and technology?

The good news is that the next president doesn’t seem all that interested in science, judging from the little he said about it during the campaign. That makes a welcome contrast with Barack Obama, who cared far too much—in the wrong way. He politicized science to advance his agenda. His scientific appointees in the White House, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Food and Drug Administration were distinguished by their progressive ideology, not the quality of their research. They used junk science—or no science—to justify misbegotten crusades against dietary salt, trans fats, and electronic cigarettes. They cited phony statistics to spread myths about a gender pay gap and a rape crisis on college campuses. Ignoring mainstream climate scientists, they blamed droughts and storms on global warming and then tried to silence critics who pointed out their mistakes.

Trump has vaguely expressed support for federal funding of R&D in science, medicine, and energy, but he has stressed encouraging innovation in the private sector. His election has left the science establishment aghast. Its members were mostly behind Hillary Clinton, both because they share her politics and because she would continue the programs funded by Obama. Their fears of losing funding are probably overblown—there’s strong support in Congress for R&D—but some of the priorities could change.

Trump has vowed to ignore the Paris international climate agreement that committed the U.S. to reduce greenhouse emissions. That prospect appalls environmentalists but cheers those of us who consider the agreement an enormously expensive way to achieve very little. Trump’s position poses a financial threat to wind-power producers and other green-energy companies that rely on federal subsidies to survive.

During the campaign, DebateScience.org, a consortium of science groups, submitted a questionnaire to the candidates. Hillary Clinton responded to a question about climate change by calling it a “defining challenge of our time” and promising to make America the “clean energy superpower of the 21st century.” Steering clear of this litany of green promises, Trump said merely that there was still “much that needs to be investigated” about climate change. Instead of promising to install a half-billion new solar panels, as Clinton promised to do, Trump offered the kind of perspective found in the Copenhagen Consensus, a group of prominent economists who have concluded that other problems are far more pressing than climate change.

“Perhaps the best use of our limited financial resources,” Trump said, “should be in dealing with making sure that every person in the world has clean water. Perhaps we should focus on eliminating lingering diseases around the world like malaria.  Perhaps we should focus on efforts to increase food production to keep pace with an ever-growing world population.  Perhaps we should be focused on developing energy sources and power production that alleviates the need for dependence on fossil fuels.  We must decide on how best to proceed so that we can make lives better, safer and more prosperous.”

Trump and Obama may agree on one policy area: space exploration. Space has never particularly interested Obama, which is why it’s one of the few science success stories of his administration. Instead of pushing for a bigger government program, he let innovative private companies such as Space X take over missions—like resupplying the International Space Station—that had been done much more expensively by NASA. Trump has promised to continue encouraging these private-sector initiatives.

“I will free NASA from the restriction of serving primarily as a logistics agency for low-Earth orbit activity—big deal,” Trump told a crowd in Sanford, Florida. He vowed to focus NASA’s efforts farther away, so that humans can explore the entire solar system by the end of the century. “Under a Trump administration, Florida and America will lead the way into the stars,” he said. Whether Trump’s pledge reflects a genuine passion for exploration is anyone’s guess, but it was certainly a convenient way to promise jobs to voters in a swing state.

Photo by BraunS/iStock


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