When President Donald Trump’s administration released its first budget proposal in February 2017, it called for deep funding cuts at several scientific agencies, most notably the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency. Congress ultimately rejected those cuts and instead dedicated more funds to research and development, but it set a precedent for how Trump would prioritize scientific endeavors during the course of his term.
While the last four years have seen a number of scientific successes—the development of COVID-19 vaccines in record time, for example—“the unfortunate thing is that science is often not used in the policymaking process under the Trump administration,” says Jacob Carter, a research scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) who studies scientific integrity.
As President-elect Joe Biden prepares to assume office, scientists are looking ahead to what the next four years may bring. The Scientist spoke to seven researchers and science policy advocates about their priorities for the new administration and what policies they would most like to see reversed.
Repairing relationships with international researchers
Shortly after entering the White House, Trump instituted a temporary travel ban targeting seven Muslim-majority countries before also threatening to end the DACA program, which provides legal protections to the US-born children of undocumented immigrants. (A version of the travel ban, which now includes North Korea, remains in effect today.) Later, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the president restricted the issuance of green cards and visas, specifically focusing on visas held by Chinese students and researchers with ties to the People’s Liberation Army. While the administration justified the move as one of national security, some university professors told The Scientist they viewed these policies as targeted discrimination.
It’s clear that the United States is no longer the go-to place.—Jeff Brodsky, University of Pittsburgh
Taken together, the consequences of these actions have been far-reaching and damaging to the scientific enterprise in the United States, scientists say.
Even before the pandemic, these measures made it difficult for international collaborators to attend scientific conferences in the US. “We all have stories of major meetings that we’ve gone to in the United States where speakers were not granted a visa,” says Terri Kinzy, the vice president for research and innovation at Western Michigan University. “That’s not something that happened more than four years ago.”
In addition, the political climate has dissuaded trainees—from undergraduates to postdocs—from coming to study in the United States. One rule currently under consideration would cap the time international students can remain in the US on their visas without needing to reapply at four years (or two for certain countries considered high-risk due to national security concerns), a term shorter than the average PhD program.
“Historically, I think we prided ourselves in the United States as attracting the best and brightest postdocs in the world,” Jeff Brodsky, a molecular biologist at the University of Pittsburgh, tells The Scientist. Now, he says, students have to contend with an ever-changing thicket of regulations and an administration that seems hostile to their presence. “It’s clear that the United States is no longer the go-to place.”
To rescind these policies, the Biden administration will need to either issue new executive orders or put forth new rules, depending on how the original policy was implemented. Proclamations made by executive order, for example, including the travel ban and the restriction of visas, can be overturned by a new executive order on day one of Biden's presidency. Other proposed rules, such as the time cap for international students, could take much longer to replace, as they must pass through a series of steps ahead of approval. Many of Trump’s interim rules are currently moving through legal challenges, and any policies meant to replace them will themselves be subject to rounds of public comment before being finalized.
Recommitting to environmental goals
Other high priorities for science advocates are a rejoining of the Paris Agreement by executive order and a recommitment to rigorous, science-based environmental policy spearheaded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Trump began targeting environmental regulations almost immediately upon taking office, with The New York Times documenting 104 rollbacks over the last four years. Much of what drives these decisions is “a perspective that the economy supersedes the effects on the environment,” says Ellie Dehoney, the vice president of policy and advocacy with the nonprofit Research!America.
Shortly after Trump became president, references to climate change disappeared from EPA websites, and the phrase has since been scrubbed from some official policy.
Many changes at the EPA have therefore aimed to trim back environmental regulations that would disadvantage industry. Some of the administration’s more contentious policies, for example, loosened regulations around greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles and power plants and eased up on restrictions on toxic chemicals. Often, decisions directly contradicted the positions of the agency’s own scientists, such as the EPA’s choice not to ban the use of the pesticide chlorpyrifos or impose limits on the chemical perchlorate in water after both were linked to brain damage in children.
“The Biden administration has an opportunity to really turn that around, to have their political appointees reaffirm to agency scientists that they stand on the side of scientific integrity,” Carter of UCS tells The Scientist.
Shortly after Trump became president, references to climate change disappeared from EPA websites, and the phrase has since been scrubbed from some official policy. The Endangered Species Act, for example, once required researchers to consider climate change when setting aside critical habitat. Under current policies, that is no longer the case, nor are federal construction grants required to account for climate change effects such as flooding in their building plans. Restoring climate change language and framing future decisions around its impact, Carter says, will signal a renewed backing of the scientific consensus by the country’s leadership.
The EPA has also changed how science is considered in making its decisions. In 2017, then–EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt barred scientists with active EPA research grants from sitting on advisory panels within the agency, although that ruling was later overturned by a federal judge. A year later, President Trump unveiled a new measure—finalized early this year—giving priority in EPA decision-making to studies with raw data that can be scrutinized, a move many science advocates see as erecting a barrier to future science-based regulations. (Pruitt quit in 2018 after numerous accusations and investigations related to misconduct.)
“That’s particularly problematic at the EPA, who often depend on epidemiological studies” to understand the links between environmental pollutants and public health, Carter tells The Scientist. The agency argues that the new measure will increase the transparency of policymaking, but opponents point out that participants’ data in epidemiological studies are sometimes kept confidential to protect their privacy.
Overturning this rule could take years, requiring new policies that will need to go through rounds of public comment before they can be adopted.
Lessons from the pandemic
Looking ahead to the next administration inevitably requires a look back to the past year, during which a global pandemic brought science to the forefront of public discussion. Here, scientists agree, there have been both successes—some of which are worth preserving—and valuable lessons.
Operation Warp Speed, the name given to the US effort to develop a coronavirus vaccine, is an unprecedented exercise in public-private collaboration and federal investment in public health. “It is important to recognize that it was rare to see every citizen completely focused on this particular issue,” says Joanne Carney, the chief government relations officer for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). “Even the Trump Administration has signed supplementals that have bolstered funding around COVID, and we need to continue to invest in public health progress.”
But even with two vaccines approved for use in the US, the rollout has been slower than expected, while the broader federal response to the pandemic has been chaotic. States have been left to implement their own measures, and most have faced shortages of protective equipment for frontline workers, as well as resources for testing and contact tracing. President Trump has frequently contradicted the recommendations of his own scientists, including Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and ultimately pulled the United States out of the World Health Organization (WHO), the group best-positioned to respond to global health crises.
The Biden administration is therefore contending with the largest public health crisis in a century even before Inauguration Day. Shortly after the election, Biden’s transition team unveiled its own coronavirus task force, and the president-elect has since pledged to “listen to science” in crafting public health policy. As part of a seven step plan to address COVID-19, he has committed to rejoining the WHO, establishing a nationwide mask mandate, doubling the number of drive-through testing sites, and investing a further $25 billion toward vaccine distribution. Vice President–elect Kamala Harris will also be establishing a COVID-19 Racial and Ethnic Disparities Task Force to address the disproportionate hospitalization and death rates among communities of color.
All of these efforts will require either executive orders or bipartisan negotiations around funding. Dehoney, who helps craft funding requests that prioritize medical research, says the pandemic has laid bare inadequacies in how money is allocated for public health. Rather than requesting more funding—an evergreen desire across all agencies—Dehoney argues for a more thoughtful approach to how existing funds are allocated. “Money is never just the answer,” she tells The Scientist. “It’s how you use it.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for example, struggled during the pandemic to shift money and personnel because its budget was largely dictated by funds earmarked for specific projects, says Dehoney. Unlike the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the CDC does not have a rainy day fund that its director can use in emergencies. While dedicating money to specific projects can ensure they receive funding, it creates a rigid system that cannot quickly respond to unexpected challenges. “Basic research is critical,” says Kinzy, “so all the funding cannot be earmarked to very specific applied projects if we want to be able to respond to the next emergency.”