Donald Trump did not mention science in his inaugural address. But that’s the norm for a president. None of his recent Republican predecessors—Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush—did so, nor did Bill Clinton. Most researchers hold fond memories of Barack Obama’s pledge in 2009 to “restore science to its rightful place,” although historians will ultimately judge whether that promise was fulfilled.
When presidents talk about science, practically speaking they are thinking of one or more of three things: funding, people, and policies. Trump’s closest reference to science was his comment that “we stand ready … to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the Earth from the miseries of disease, and to harness the energies, industries, and technologies of tomorrow.” He also repeated his campaign slogan to “make America great again.”
Now that the nation’s 45th president is on the job, scientists will be listening closely to see whether those words are a harbinger of his science policy. Here are 10 questions that researchers should be asking as presidential rhetoric confronts political realities.
Will Trump influence the 2017 budget?
Spending at federal agencies for the 2017 fiscal year, which began last October, is currently frozen at 2016 levels through the end of April under a so-called continuing resolution. The Trump administration must soon decide whether to weigh in as Congress completes work on the 12 appropriations bills that divvy up some $1.1 trillion in discretionary spending. The details matter; funding the first tranche of a multibillion-dollar boost for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is in the mix, for example. The White House could also signal support for controversial policy riders that would bar agencies from spending money on enforcing particular regulations, including environmental rules.
How will R&D fare in Trump’s first budget?
Trump is reportedly planning next month to unveil the broad outlines of his budget request for the upcoming 2018 fiscal year, with details to follow in May. That will be the first real description of his spending priorities. Will Trump maintain the tradition of devoting between 10% and 12% of discretionary spending to research and development? Will he call for the deep cuts to climate and environmental science, and research on renewable energy technologies, which some conservative lawmakers and think tanks have long advocated? Keep in mind, however, that Congress has the final say over spending, and that no president has ever gotten everything he wants.
Who will advise Trump on science?
Trump has so far ignored the pleadings of many scientific organizations for the speedy selection of a prominent scientist to be his science adviser. But the adviser’s standing in the scientific community and the appointment’s timing are not the only issues. Will that person have direct access to the president, or report through one of several emerging centers of power in the West Wing? And what will be the makeup of a blue ribbon science panel that has advised presidents since Dwight Eisenhower, should Trump decide to name one?
Who will run the science agencies?
The real work of managing federal research falls not to Cabinet secretaries, whose hearings attract media attention, but to several dozen much less visible senior administrators within those departments and independent agencies. None has yet been appointed, although NIH Director Francis Collins is one of 50 “essential” officials that Trump last week asked to remain at least temporarily while his team is put in place. Will they be men and women of eminent statute in the academic community, as were most of Obama’s choices? And if a high proportion hail from industry, as has been the pattern in past Republican administrations, will they command the respect of the scientific establishment that conducts most of the research funded by their agencies?
Will science be part of an infrastructure plan?
Trump used his inaugural speech to repeat his campaign promise for massive spending to rebuild the country’s transportation infrastructure. Many scientists and some lawmakers have a broader vision that includes scientific and advanced computing facilities. But such big-ticket items clash with the demands of congressional Republicans to reduce federal spending. So expect a lot of backroom negotiations on what is and isn’t acceptable within any infrastructure bill that might emerge.
How many of Obama’s science initiatives will survive?
The Obama administration tried to tackle a range of societal problems with multiagency initiatives that included major research components. They included efforts to prepare communities to adapt to climate change; the cancer moonshot, precision medicine, and brain research in the health arena; a network of advanced manufacturing institutes to recapture global industrial dominance; and public-private partnerships to improve science and math education. Although many of them received bipartisan support, it’s not clear what Trump thinks of any of them. Legacy initiatives traditionally face an uphill battle under any new administration, especially if they originated in the opposite party.
Whither space exploration?
Space was never a front-burner issue for the Obama administration, and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was generally viewed as at best a cheerleader for policies on human and robotic exploration that were poorly articulated and never adequately funded. Does Trump have a more muscular vision? Is “unlocking the mysteries of space” a tacit endorsement of what some influential Republicans hope will be a costly robotic mission to find life on a watery moon of Jupiter? Does it presage astronauts returning to the moon? And what will be his administration’s stance on commercial space ventures?
Will the United States remain part of ITER?
The United States is one of seven partners building ITER, an international fusion research reactor in France. It is a testbed for what could someday be a hugely important source of power, and participation means a continued U.S. role in developing this technology. But ITER is almost comically overbudget and behind schedule, and some members of Congress want the United States to pull out, in part because ITER spending threatens domestic fusion research programs. Trump and Congress could soon need to decide whether ITER is worth that price.
Will statistical agencies be targets?
Federal statistics move the U.S. economy, providing data that governments and companies use in deciding how to spend trillions of dollars in public and private investments. A shining example is the American Community Survey (ACS), a 72-question annual survey that is an extension of the decennial census that counts every U.S. resident. But many congressional Republicans think the ACS is intrusive and unnecessary, and would like to shrink it and make it voluntary. Will a Trump administration support these and other attacks on the work of the 13 federal statistical agencies, which collect and analyze data on everything from housing subsidies to science Ph.D.s?
How far will the regulatory rollback go?
Trump has said he wants to cancel two federal regulations for every new one that is put in place. And administration officials have signaled that they will support pending efforts in Congress to use an obscure law to eliminate up to a dozen major rules that came out late in Obama’s tenure, including rules that seek to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas operations and protect streams from coal mining. A host of other Obama-era climate, environmental, and health rules have also been objects of ridicule by Trump officials. But erasing any of them could take years and likely require winning in court.