AAAS Explores Science Policy in the Incoming Trump Administration

 

From left, moderator Lori Stokes, Louis Sullivan, Rush Holt, John Porter and Mike Castle discuss the impact of the election outcome on science policy. | Stephen Waldron/AAAS

President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to boost the U.S. economy and improve the lives of Americans requires investment in science, technology, innovation and education, said Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in an editorial Science released online on Nov. 17.

Holt, who also serves as the executive publisher of the Science family of journals, called on the administration to make scientific evidence a touchstone of policy making even when research results may challenge political goals.

“We must make clear that an official cannot wish away what is known about climate change, gun violence, opioid addiction, fisheries depletion or any other public issue illuminated by research,” wrote Holt in the Science editorial that also will appear in the Nov. 25 print edition.

The incoming administration’s success will depend on the extent to which it supports international research efforts, taps scientists to serve throughout federal agencies, backs tax policies that spur private and public sector work in science and encourages scientists to share research findings that test political positions, wrote Holt.

The early appointment of a respected scientist or engineer would help the administration more quickly cope with unpredictable events requiring technical expertise. It also would provide guidance from the outset on diverse and important topics such as cybersecurity, advanced manufacturing, infrastructure development and diplomacy, Holt added.

The editorial was one of several efforts AAAS has pursued since Trump was elected the 45th president after a highly charged election that largely sidestepped scientific topics and shed little light on the future of existing science initiatives – something that has raised questions in the scientific community.

During a post-election session AAAS hosted on Nov. 15 a panel of experts urged scientists to be voices for medical research, innovation and evidence-based policy to assist the administration as it prepares to take control in January. The panel discussion was organized by Research!America, a nonprofit dedicated to improved health through medical research.

Panelists with experience in the executive branch, Congress, non-profit groups and political strategy said the speed at which the president-elect names the science adviser and the scope of authority prescribed for the adviser will provide an early indication of the incoming administration’s posture toward science policy.

How the current Congress wraps up action on pending fiscal year 2017 appropriations bills before year’s end will be another sign of the way forward, panelist said. House and Senate leaders delivered that signal in deciding on Nov. 17 to extend a short-term spending measure, known as a continuing resolution, through March 31, an action that holds spending at current levels and gives Republicans who will control the White House and Congress an opportunity to shape a broader spending blueprint next year. The move left on the table already negotiated spending bills that included increases for scientific research and development programs.

Mary Woolley, president and CEO of Research!America, cited with optimism Trump’s responses to questions set forth by ScienceDebate.org, a nonprofit science advocacy organization. In them, Trump called for “investment in research and development across a broad landscape of academia” and endorsed a “commitment to invest in science, engineering, healthcare and other areas.”

 

John Zogby shared election polling results that showed reduced turnout a factor in the outcome. He struck an optimistic tone for the way forward. | Stephen Waldron/AAAS

John Zogby, founder and senior partner of John Zogby Strategies, an international polling firm, said in an interview after the event, that polls have long found “huge majorities” of Americans support steps that keep the United States as a global leader in innovation, technology development and the global hub of top research colleges and universities.

Polls also have consistently shown significant majorities of Americans favor medical research, something that is particularly strong among those with family or close friends facing life-threatening illnesses. Such public support can become a strong political factor in support of science if correctly presented, Zogby said.

Louis Sullivan, secretary of the Health and Human Services Department during the George H.W. Bush administration and former Reps. John Edward Porter of Illinois and Mike Castle of Delaware cited institutional processes that may make major science policy reversals less likely.

A day earlier, 3,081 scientists, engineers, policymakers, academics and journalists participated in a AAAS post-election webinar that featured Holt; former Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee, Celeste Rohlfing, AAAS’ chief operating officer and David Goldston, a former chief of staff of the House Committee on Science and Technology.

Whether the incoming administration keeps in place popular Obama administration programs such as the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative, a $1 billion program led by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.; the BRAIN initiative or the drive to reverse antibiotic resistance remains unclear, the panelist said.

One factor at play is that federal funding levels for  science agencies are largely determined by the overall size of domestic discretionary spending: the larger the total funding, the greater the share for scientific agencies, Goldston said.

Each speaker also noted that the White House cannot unilaterally end programs or eliminate regulations. Support from Congress, state and local governments, stakeholders and the public are almost always required. The federal regulatory process has to be engaged to end rules set by law.

“The public cares about these things,” Holt said. “Even an antiestablishment president-elect is not going to thumb his nose at the public.”