The National Science Foundation’s oversight board is discussing whether to continue featuring advances in clean energy technologies, such as this parabolic trough solar power plant, in its periodic statistical tome.

Randy Montoya/Sandia Labs/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Is NSF feeling the Trump effect on clean energy?

The Trump effect may have swept over the National Science Board this morning.

The presidentially appointed oversight body for the National Science Foundation (NSF) is considering whether to revise a portion of the agency’s statistical bible because it might be seen as out of step with the new administration’s views on renewable energy research.

“Given the current climate—I mean, political situation—in Washington, I’m wondering whether highlighting [clean energy] is something we still want to do,” board member G. P. (Bud) Peterson asked today during the board’s review of the next edition of Science & Engineering Indicators, a biennial compendium of global trends in science and technology.

The worrisome language is a 17-page section on global investments in clean energy technologies that is slated to appear in the 2018 edition of Indicators due out in January. The discussion of clean energy has doubled in size since it first appeared in the 2012 edition. It is part of a chapter examining trends in industry R&D, one of eight in the authoritative report.

As president of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Peterson knows that President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget proposal would slash federal support for basic energy research, which is done predominantly on U.S. campuses like his. But he and other board members never mentioned that elephant in the room. And Geraldine Richmond, chair of the board committee that oversees Indicators, swears that the discussion was not motivated by politics.

“None of us wants to see Indicators become politically driven,” says Richmond, a chemistry professor at the University of Oregon in Eugene. “We would lose all our credibility if that happened.”

Richmond says panel members were focused on keeping Indicators on the cutting edge in monitoring research developments. Peterson and others were simply asking whether clean energy still warranted a special place in the report, she adds. NSF analyst Derek Hill had noted earlier that the industry chapter will for the first time contain a brief discussion of the Internet of Things (IOT), a phrase that describes the increasing interconnectivity of consumer products. And that fact struck a chord with Peterson.

When clean energy was added to the 2012 report, it “was a new and emerging topic,” he said. “So my question is, ‘IOT is, but is clean energy?’”

Another board member took the next step. “I don’t have an opinion about if we [drop] it,” explained Ruth David, a former senior official in the U.S. intelligence and national security community based in Gordonville, Texas. “But if we do, the logic would be that we’re trading out a more mature issue for an emerging issue.”

Richmond polled the board and reports she found unanimous support for pursuing the topic. “I thought it was a good idea and something that should go forward, and people nodded their heads,” she says. Richmond says the next step is for the entire 24-member board to discuss the idea in the context of whether the chapter should include a fluctuating section on emerging technologies that would reflect the state of the science at a particular time.

Board members are scheduled to get another crack at reviewing Indicators this summer before it goes into final production. Richmond said that schedule gives the board plenty of time to decide both whether clean energy should remain in the 2018 edition and whether subsequent versions should feature an analysis of one or more emerging technologies.