Science Policy Faces Uncertainties Under New Administration

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From left: Atul Arya and William Bonvillian were among experts who discussed the future of science and energy policy under the Trump administration during a AAAS Annual Meeting session. | Ashley Gilleland/AAAS

BOSTON – These are uncertain times for government support of scientific research, even as the role of science in informing policy has never been more important.   

That was the core message that emerged from a wide-ranging session at the 2017 AAAS Annual Meeting on the prospects for science policy under the Trump administration.

Experts on federal science and energy policy shared their perspectives on what lies ahead for public policy support for science and for the role of science in guiding government decision-making.

William Bonvillian, the director of MIT’s Washington office, painted a somewhat grim picture of the road ahead, as he outlined the threats to federal spending to support scientific research. With an aging population placing increasing demands on entitlement programs like Social Security, and likely federal spending increases for defense and infrastructure programs, budgets for scientific research could come under intense pressure.

“It’s part of the domestic discretionary spending category, which remains the easiest target for offsets to spending increases,” Bonvillian said. “We’re going need to tell the story, that R&D is actually a key part of the solution. Technological innovation and economic growth are directly tied. We’re going to need a higher growth rate to face the budget issues from the demographics.”

To prepare for this coming challenge, Bonvillian said, universities and research institutions must make a stronger case for their relevance in solving some of the social problems that came to the fore in the 2016 election, such as job creation and declining middle class wages.

“How are we going to respond in this new atmosphere? We need to think strategically,” counseled Bonvillian. “We need to examine and work on challenges like quality job creation, the future of work, education and training that can reach more in our society with the skills they’ll need to move themselves up. We need to start getting policy solutions out on the table.”

Atul Arya, senior vice president of IHS Energy Insight, gave an overview of the larger trends in energy markets and climate policy that confront the incoming administration’s agenda. From a proposed border tariff that could affect energy imports and exports, to recent approvals for new oil pipelines and an early rollback of regulations on coal production, the Trump administration is likely to usher in significant changes in energy policy.

“A very simple way to summarize the new administration energy policy is ‘more rigs and less regs’,” said Arya. “More drilling and less regulation. The view that we need to deregulate everything, everywhere as much as possible – I think that’s what we are going to see.”

Arya observed that the Clean Power Plan, a lynchpin of the Obama administration’s climate strategy, is “on life support.”

“But the states have a very active agenda,” he said, noting that most states have renewable energy and climate policies that might ultimately deliver many of the goals of the CPP.

Meanwhile, he predicted that certain market drivers will constrain Trump’s ability to deliver on promises to revive the coal industry. “The ‘war on coal’ is from gas, not from any regulation. If you look at unconventional gas production, we will have vast volumes of natural gas available for the next 25 years at very low prices.”

Robert Cook-Deegan, professor at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University, discussed the challenges ahead for biomedical research.

He emphasized that uncertainty clouds the future on many fronts of science policy. The continuity of major biomedical programs is up in the air and many federal employees harbor fears about ongoing support for their work.

“The slogan that carried Donald Trump into the White House was ‘drain the swamp’, and that meant ‘change things’,” he said. “We haven’t drained the swamp, but we’ve been throwing lots of alligators into it who have been starved for eight years,” he said, referring to the new administration’s slate of cabinet nominees, many of them with industry ties. “And federal employees feel like they’re the food.”

“There are important research grant programs at EPA, NOAA, USDA and other parts of the government,” Cook-Deegan said of the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Agriculture. “There are a lot of people in those programs worried about climate and energy research. All we have right now are question marks.”

He said that roughly 85 percent of biomedical research spending, comes through the National Institutes for Health (NIH), so much will depend on the priorities of its leadership going forward. The other 15% comes through other agencies, such as the Veterans Administration, Department of Defense and other agencies. As for the fate of those research programs, “we’ll see only when new budgets come out,” said Cook-Deegan.

Cook-Deegan pointed to one “bright spot” for biomedical research amid all this uncertainty: in last year’s lame duck session of Congress, the 21st Century Cures Act passed with bipartisan support. The bill provides funding over the next ten years for the Precision Medicine Initiative, the “cancer moonshot” research program headed by former Vice President Joseph Biden and the BRAIN Initiative. “Those programs are funded and can move forward, even in the current fiscal year. That’s remarkable.”

As for the larger question of the role science will play in the new administration’s decision-making processes, Cook-Deegan noted that appointments to fill key roles, at NIH and other agencies, will be important to watch. But he expressed confidence in the firm commitment of most federal employees to science-based policy-making.

“There will be huge swaths of government activity that will be evidence-driven. Most of the power and energy of government is embedded deep in agencies with lots of people who are good at their jobs. Evidence matters.”

Bonvillian and Arya concurred that individuals can make an enormous difference – especially those appointed to key advisory roles.

“For example, [Secretary of State] Rex Tillerson comes from the energy industry, has evolved his view on climate and he could be a quite influential person,” said Arya. “We’ll have to see how climate policy unfolds over time. I won’t rule out some shifts.”

Bonvillian observed that the president has yet to appoint a new science adviser – a position that scientific organizations, including AAAS, have called on the president to fill as soon as possible.

“We know that the governance process is intensely personal,” he said. “People count. Many, many federal policy decisions involve increasingly intense scientific and technological overtones, aspects and features. And that scientific advisory role is critical in the general decision-making process. Without it, you’re operating with a hand tied behind your back.”

[Associated Image: Atlantic Photography]