Donald Trump

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Here’s some advice for you, President Trump, from scientists

The voters have chosen Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States. So now it’s time for scientists to share their thoughts with the business tycoon who triumphed over both Democrat Hillary Clinton and much of the Republican party he represented in the election.

There’s been almost no interaction between the science community and the campaign over the past 18 months. Most academics didn’t support Trump and never expected him to beat Clinton. Trump operatives didn’t do any outreach to the scientific establishment, and its agenda wasn’t addressed during the campaign. Last night the election results confirmed the community’s status as outsiders. 

“I am simply stunned,” says Neal Lane, a Democrat who led the National Science Foundation and served as White House science adviser under President Bill Clinton. “Trump’s election does not bode well for science or most anything else of value,” adds Lane, a physicist and university professor at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

But now that Trump will be occupying the Oval Office for the next 4 years, researchers want him to know what they think it will take to preserve and strengthen the scientific enterprise. For many policy wonks, the list starts with picking a well-qualified science advisor and head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). That person should also play a big role in filling other science-related positions throughout the government, Lane and others say.

Assuming a Clinton victory, the grapevine was already buzzing with possible names who would satisfy a rumored preference for the first-ever woman and nonphysicist to serve as presidential science advisor. But some policy wonks have been quick to adjust to the new Trump reality.

Scientists need to stand up and be heard.

Andrew Rosenberg, Union of Concerned Scientists

“In thinking about who might suit Donald Trump’s personality, a candidate close to retirement or retired from business and industry, who has the respect of the scientific, engineering, and innovation community and is interested in undertaking the challenges of public service, might be the best choice,” opines Deborah Stine, professor of the practice in engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and a former White House staffer under President Obama. “Bonus points if the candidate is a woman, but convincing one to serve in the administration is likely to be a challenge.”

The pool of potential candidates needn’t be confined to Republicans, Stine says. “Past science advisers have not always had the same party affiliation as the president for whom they worked,” she notes, a reference to the late John Marburger, a Democrat who was science adviser to Republican President George W. Bush.

Fairly or not, science politicos regard the selection of a presidential science adviser as a litmus test for what the new president thinks about their issues. And Robert Cook-Deegan, a research professor at Arizona State University in Tempe, is pessimistic about what that could mean. “For Trump, I'm not sure [the appointment] would matter, because there won't be any ‘policy’ apparatus, but only traffic cops and damage control fire brigades. Science won't get much attention, except when it gets in the way or bolsters support for a political priority.”

Andrew Rosenberg, of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says scientists can’t afford the luxury of such negative thinking. “Scientists need to stand up and be heard,” says Rosenberg, a former senior official for fisheries within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “They can’t just hunker down in their labs and say that they won’t get involved because the election didn’t go the way they wanted it to.”

The absence of science on the campaign trail this year was not unusual. But while Clinton crafted lengthy policy statements on any number of topics involving science and innovation, Trump’s most relevant comments can be found in brief answers to 20 questions posed by Sciencedebate.org.

Investment in infrastructure?

But those statements were likely written by campaign staffers and may not be a good indication of what Trump actually thinks. A better yardstick may be this morning’s victory speech, in which the only issue Trump mentions is a plan to rebuild the country’s transportation infrastructure. And many science wonks are hoping that Trump will include research and cyberinfrastructure in his definition of what needs to be upgraded.

Bart Gordon, a Democrat and former chairman of the House of Representatives science committee, who retired from Congress in 2010, thinks that it might be possible to build bipartisan support for such an infrastructure bill depending on its size and how it would be paid for. Now a lobbyist with K&L Gates, an international law firm based in Washington, D.C., Gordon doesn’t expect it to be as large as the $850 billion stimulus package enacted in the first weeks of the Obama administration. That economic recovery bill contained some $20 billion for various research agencies to invest in “shovel-ready” projects. But he thinks that legislators and the White House could agree on a smaller investment in research.

Such a bill would send “a strong signal about the importance of science,” says Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities in Washington, D.C. But Smith says Trump will need to do much more than that to win over a community still unhappy with the policies of the most recent Republican in the White House.

“Under George W. Bush, politics increasingly seeped into major science policy decisions,” says Smith, “from the position he took on stem cell research to choosing scientific advisory committee members based on their political as views as opposed to their scientific credentials. Already wary of Trump’s support for science, the scientific community will be watching closely to see if President Trump takes similar actions or if he is able to transcend his early rhetoric to find a way to demonstrate that he will respect and take science seriously.”