Tuesday 9 January 2018

Trumping Science

Trump (photo: Wikipedia)
For the second time this year, I woke to news that winded me. As I left the house, the rain hammered against my face and coursed down the gutters. It felt that weather was a physical manifestation of the despair that many of us felt.

As the UK had done nearly five months before, the United States appeared to have voted for isolationism after a divisive, bullying, ill-informed campaign. Fear, anger and retreat had triumphed over hope, openness and inclusivity.

For the second time this year, I tried to imagine what this result may do for research and the funding that underpins it. The initial signs aren’t good.

Michael Lubell, director of public affairs at the American Physical Society, described Trump as the ‘first anti-science president’, and it’s hard to disagree. As Michael Gove had dismissed ‘experts’ during the UK’s Leave campaign, the president-elect seems to disdain those that offer advice based on robust and exhaustive research.

In 2012, he had dismissed climate change, saying that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive”. During the campaign he stated that he would ‘cancel’ the Paris Agreement, and he appointed a climate change sceptic to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

He has a similar disregard for the research underpinning biomedicine. In 2014 Trump tweeted his Wakefieldian belief in a link between vaccination and autism. “Healthy young child goes to doctor,” he wrote, “gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn't feel good and changes—AUTISM. Many such cases!” In 2015 he said on the Michael Savage radio show,  “I hear so much about the [National Institutes of Health] and it's terrible”, going on to say that, if the right-wing host were put in charge, “you'd get common sense”. Mike Pence, Trump’s running mate and vice-president-elect, seems to share his scepticism, dismissing embryonic stem cell research as ‘obsolete’.

However, while clearly sceptical, we know little of substance about what Trump will actually do to steer science funding. This has left those in the field trying to second guess his future policies. “I think it is fair to say that Donald Trump is a black box,” said Paul Offit, chief of the division of infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “He says one thing one day and the opposite the next. He certainly scares me far more than Hillary Clinton, who has generally supported public health.”

“We don't know exactly what a Trump presidency would mean for Duke in the area of federal research for scientific agencies,” noted Chris Simmons, associate vice-president of federal relations at the university. “He doesn't have a record of voting or promoting investment on scientific research, just because he hasn't held a position before.”

Simmons’ colleague Paul Vick, associate vice-president for government relations at the Duke University Health System, spelt out a truism: “The more knowledgeable a president is about scientific research, the more interest they have in it and will acknowledge it.” Given Trump’s on-record comments, this doesn’t bode well.

While there is a clear potential impact on federal funding resulting from Trump’s scientific scepticism and ignorance, there is an equal long-term danger to the reputation of the US as one of the powerhouses of scientific research. In July I wrote about the effect that the result of the European referendum was already having on the UK’s reputation with collaborators.

Among the more commonly reported experiences of links being politely withdrawn, one respondent wrote of the personal effect of the referendum campaign, and the subsequent fallout: “The nasty tone of the Brexit campaign towards immigrants, the outcome of the referendum, and the outpouring of xenophobia afterwards, has made me very uncomfortable and certainly more likely to consider job offers outside of the UK.”

When Nature canvassed scientists shortly after the presidential result was known, the views given shared much of this tone of alienation and despair. “This is terrifying for science, research, education, and the future of our planet,” tweeted Maria Escribano, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford. “I guess it's time for me to go back to Europe.”

Peter Peregrine, an anthropologist at Lawrence University, wrote, “I am confused, angry, depressed…I feel much like I do when I receive the comments on a rejected paper that the reviewers have torn apart. This morning I realised that I don't actually know a Trump supporter whom I could talk to about the election. How can I reach the public if I'm only speaking to my own circle?”

And it is this disconnect, this sense of isolation and ostracisation, that may do the most damage to America’s research base during the Trump administration. While it might survive the leadership—and funding cuts—of a climate change denier and a creationist, the triumph of fear, anger and retreat over hope, openness and inclusivity could poison the research well and drive some of the best minds to more benign environments that will welcome them with open arms.

This article first appeared in Funding Insight in November 2016 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit

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