In a recent news story published by Nature.com (the same company that produces the well-known science journal of the same name), Michael Lubell, the director of public affairs for the American Physical Society, called Donald Trump “the first anti-science president.”
The story, which included public reactions from scientists around the world gathered from places like Twitter, featured more input from other researchers who appeared to share Lubell’s concern.
“This is terrifying for science, research, education, and the future of our planet,” tweeted María Escudero Escribano, a postdoc studying electrochemistry and and sustainable energy conversation at Stanford University in California. “I guess it’s time for me to go back to Europe.”
Trump has never explicitly said that he wants to reduce funding for science in the US. However, his lack of policy and planning for the scientific community — paired with his apparently ridiculous budgeting — could be a worry in itself.
Another concern that people in the research community have is Trump’s apparent distain for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) — the federal agency that shells out billions for biomedical research. There’s a famously quoted interview with Michael Savage on a conservative radio show last year where Trump said: “I hear so much about the NIH, and it’s terrible.”
“I do breast cancer research for my PhD,” tweeted Sarah Hengel, a graduate student at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. “Scared not only for my future but for the future of research and next years @NIH budget.”
Without federal money, labs would crumble, because there simply aren’t enough private donors to make up that amount of funding.
Also, with private donors, they can often expect to see something ground-breaking very quickly, and unfortunately science very seldom relies on eureka moments. It’s more like building blocks, with every small step getting a little bit closer to understanding a disease or metabolic function. That’s where cures and treatments come from.
It’s more about what Trump hasn’t said than what he has.
Trump has pledged to cut federal spending, but he hasn’t offered much information about how this could affect technological and scientific advancement, or exactly how he plans to balance lowered taxes with more innovation.
Trump has said that the US “must have programs such as a viable space program and institutional research that serve as incubators to innovation and the advancement of science and engineering in a number of fields,” but has also suggested that the massive tax cuts he has planned will reduce the amount of money available that funds these things.
He told ScienceDebate.org that while “there are increasing demands to curtail spending and to balance the federal budget, 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,” offering no way of balancing the two issues.
Still, what Trump says and does are two different things.
But just because Trump has said these things, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he’ll stop funding scientific research. As Jennifer Zeitzer, the director of legislative relations at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology told The Verge, he has remained a bit of a black box on the issue.
“The good news is we don’t know what it means for public funding,” she said. “And the bad news is we don’t know what it means for public funding.”
Trump hasn’t exactly been a conventional candidate since his campaign began, so it’s hard to predict what his moves will be in terms of research. In previous presidencies, Republicans have generally spent more on the NIH and National Science Foundation, while Democratic leaders have increased spending on NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation.
However, this definitely doesn’t mean Trump will follow suit. He could be swayed by Republicans around him, such as Mike Pence who doesn’t believe in stem cell research or that evolution exists, and who has said in the past that he doesn’t believe smoking causes cancer.
Trump could lean more towards the House Freedom Caucus, who are a populist group of Republican lawmakers who want to decrease federal spending everywhere, or he could take advice from people like Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander who has called for more funding for research.
The reality is that no-one really knows, and until Trump makes some announcements about what his presidency will mean for the future of American science funding, researchers will be left in the dark.