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November 11, 2016

What does a Trump presidency mean for science in the US?

US President-Elect Donald Trump’s victory caused a large amount of unrest for many Americans, including scientists who are uncertain what this outcome means for the future of their research, according to recent media reports.

As previously reported by RedOrbit, there was concern among climate experts prior to Tuesday’s election as to what a Trump victory would mean for the US’s continued involvement in the Paris accord, the international agreement ratified by more than 100 nations that would seek to limit the planet’s increasing temperatures. Trump says that he wants to pull out of the Paris agreement.

Prior to the election, the non-profit organization Science Debate asked Trump (as well as the rest of the Presidential candidates) their stances on various topics, including climate change. The now President-elect responded by saying that there was “still much that needs to be investigated in the field of ‘climate change’” and adding that “our limited financial resources” would be better spent on things such as developing renewable energy and increasing food production.

That approach was echoed in a recent op-ed written by Robert S. Walker, a likely member of the Trump NASA transition team, and a public policy expert Peter Navarro, in which they wrote that they felt that the US space agency “should be focused primarily on deep space activities” and not “Earth-centric work that is better handled by other agencies,” including global warming.

NASA’s primary goal, the duo wrote, should be “human exploration of our entire Solar System by the end of this century.” That would appear to indicate that the Trump administration may be planning to drastically alter the agency’s climate research. In fact, Walker has said that he hoped much of that work would be shifted to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association in the hopes that NASA would be able to focus primarily on projects related to space travel.

Trump's anti-science messages scare scientists

Science Debate also asked Trump about his views on biodiversity, to which the now President-Elect said that “laws that tilt the scales toward special interests must be modified to balance the needs of society with the preservation of our valuable living resources” and that he would bring “all stakeholders to the table to determine the best approach” to reach that “balance.”

When asked about innovation, he called it “one of the great by-products of free market systems,” adding, “the federal government should encourage innovation in the areas of space exploration and investment in research and development across the broad landscape of academia... We must make the commitment to invest in science, engineering, healthcare and other areas that will make the lives of Americans better, safer and more prosperous.”

Those comments have done little to reassure concerned scientists who are worried about what the next four years will mean for their funding, according to BBC News. Specifically, they are afraid that applied research (research which focuses on practical applications of science, including that done with commercial purposes in mind) will take money from fundamental research which aims to simply improve our understanding of natural phenomena, the UK news agency said.

Cutting back immigration could "bring scientific infrastructure to its knees"

For instance, Robin Bell, the incoming president of the American Geophysical Union, told the Washington Post, “There's a fear that the scientific infrastructure in the US is going to be on its knees,” and Michael Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society, called Trump “the first anti-science president we have ever had” in an interview with Nature.

It isn’t just his science-specific policies that have researchers concerned either, Nature added. In fact, some of the hallmarks of his candidacy, including his proposed ban on Muslims entering the US, have many worried that it would prevent talented international scientists from traveling here to work with their American colleagues or to study at institutions in the States. Likewise, at least some who are already here are at least considering returning to their country of origin.

“This is terrifying for science, research, education, and the future of our planet. I guess it's time for me to go back to Europe,” María Escudero Escribano, a postdoc studying sustainable energy conversation and electrochemistry at Stanford University, tweeted, according to Nature. Breast cancer researcher Sarah Hengel from the University of Iowa added that she was “scared not only for my future but for the future of research” as a whole, due largely to possible cuts in funding.

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Image credit: George Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons