Federal Science Funding Will Likely 'Remain in Jeopardy' Under Trump

An Interview with Dr. Rush D Holt, American Association for the Advancement of Science CEO.
December 4, 2016, 8:00pm
Image: Chet Susslin / National Journal

We've already seen plenty of alarming news about what the Trump presidency could mean for science, from stripping NASA's supposedly "politicised" climate research to the potentially huge impact on renewable energy research funding.

Even though there's been a number of voices within the media cautioning against judging the president elect too soon, the consensus already within the scientific community is that a Trump presidency is almost certainly bad news. Following a campaign characterised throughout by anti-intellectualism—and a distinct disregard for science in particular— many scientists are worried that Trump and his allies will financially purge areas of science and tech research associated with a supposedly liberal agenda, along with projects for which there might be immense benefits, but for which there's no immediate application.

However, if there's one person who has a good idea about what the new administration should be doing to fund science and tech, it's former Democratic congressman and current CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Dr. Rush D. Holt. As the head of perhaps the most well-known science advocacy organisation in America, he's well positioned to tell us how the man called "the first anti-science president" might approach the issue of funding so-called "Big Science."

Motherboard: What are the main risks that you see to science and technology funding from the US government under a Trump presidency?

Dr. Rush D. Holt: The dust still hasn't settled yet—and several weeks after the election we still don't really know how the incoming administration will treat science and science funding. I would argue that the biggest question is, will the president appreciate science? Will he surround himself with people who understand that decisions based on scientific evidence, instead of ideological assertions, are more likely to succeed?

Science funding will remain in jeopardy if the administration doesn't appreciate what research can bring to people's lives, the economy and people's quality of life. But it's important to remember that in the US, it's Congress that makes the appropriations—which is a right that they jealously defend—so there's a bit less uncertainty there than with the next president. But we've seen in the last few years now that this Congress—and most likely the next one too—will seek to limit discretionary spending on science.

We already know that Trump is likely to slash NASA's spending on climate research. However, in light of his recent apparent softening on the issue of global warming, do you think any other federal organisations would be able to pick up the slack and take over at least some of the work from NASA?

Well, if the Congress cuts funding for earth sciences, then I doubt they would restrict themselves to NASA— they would probably also restrict earth sciences in NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and probably also the US Geological Survey (USGS) too. I don't doubt that that a Republican administration will restrict funding on earth sciences, because they've been doing that for years. But as far as NASA's mandate is concerned, earth sciences were actually part of their written mission, and I'd be surprised if that was taken away from them completely.

Is there any chance that existing "big science" projects like the BRAIN Initiative—a hugely ambitious, federally funded project to completely map the human brain— could be in jeopardy, considering what Trump has said about the National Institute of Health, for example? And what areas of science funding do you think will be best protected in the next few years?

I think that the BRAIN Initiative, and some of the mental health initiatives and so forth, are underway now and likely to continue at least on some level. I think Congress wants to do that, and once again, it's Congress who makes the appropriations, and not the president. It's reasonable to expect that, within a constrained budget—called a "sequestration budget"—whilst nothing is going to be doing well, programs within any of the congressional districts for the states of the members of the appropriations committee are likely to be treated better than average. So where there are national labs or research institutes within those states, it's a pretty good bet that those will be doing better than average.

I realise that your answer here will probably be fairly different from what actually happens, but what would you like to see a federal government doing in the next four years ideally?

I'd like to see vigorous support for research and development for what's sometimes called "basic research"—research for which there is no immediate application. There is so much of the progress of civilisation, in the last century or more, that has resulted from curiosity driven research—research that is intended to fill in the gaps in the basic structure (of scientific knowledge) that provides the underpinning for the applied research that comes later. That's not getting the attention that it needs to.

An example of that would be the discovery of gravitational waves, which was not applied research, but was funded at a good level over decades, or work on fundamental organisms like yeast or bacteria. Also earth sciences, which we clearly need to be doing more of. We're spending a lot of money looking for habitable worlds where there might be life around our galaxy, but we have one right here that needs more attention—it's us! So there really needs to be an expansion of funding of earth sciences, rather than a contraction.

What do you think Trump will seek to actively invest in?

We have almost no idea. As you've pointed out, he's said some things about NASA and space research, he's said some things about earth sciences and climate change, but beyond that, Trump has shown little interest in science. That doesn't necessarily mean that he will seek to reduce research, what it means more is that we don't know what he will seek to spend money on. Even as far as the defence side of research and development is concerned (normally considered a safe bet under a Republican administration), he's talked before about America going alone on defence and other times he's talked about the rest of the world providing global defence. He has no public record (on his views on science) and his campaign record is very hard to read.

It's possible that we might find ourselves clutching at straws here, are there any positives that could could come out of a Trump administration as far as science funding is concerned?

Oh sure. The fact that we don't know doesn't mean that it's going to be all bad—but we just don't know…

So it's perhaps not a total reason to panic, as far as for the science community is concerned—we know, for example that a lot of the funding will be protected by congress…

We scientists have been saying that we hope this administration will make decisions based on evidence. But what I'm also saying is that we should be doing the same. Let's see what he does. We know that his appointments to agencies—even though they don't have much to say about science—are not encouraging that those agencies will have great appreciation for or support for science. But all we can do is look for the evidence.