If former Vice President Joe Biden wins the presidential election, he will face high expectations from the U.S. scientific community. Its members will be counting on him to bring science and leadership to the fight against COVID-19 while reversing a host of moves by President Donald Trump that many researchers regard as disastrous. A President Biden will have vast authority to move quickly to undo many Trump policies. But he could be hampered by forces beyond his control, including which party controls the Senate, the ideological complexion of the courts, and—when it comes to fighting COVID-19—the progress of science itself.
Here’s a look at some science-related actions Biden will likely pursue, and how quickly he might be able to accomplish them.
Tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.
Biden has made confronting the pandemic the centerpiece of his presidential campaign. The most dramatic immediate shift is likely to be in the tone and consistency of messaging coming from the Oval Office and federal health agencies. On his first day, Biden has promised to “stop the political theater and willful misinformation that has heightened confusion and discrimination,” hold daily briefings that “put scientists and public health leaders front and center,” and ensure that government scientists “do not fear retribution or public disparagement for performing their jobs.” He’s also pledged to rejoin the World Health Organization and boost funding for its pandemic efforts.
At home, Biden says he’ll work with governors and local officials to encourage greater use of physical distancing and masks—possibly even mandating their use at federal facilities and on federal lands. And he’s vowed to reverse the erosion of public trust in two key health agencies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), by appointing new leadership and improving the transparency of decision-making.
Yet getting new agency leaders confirmed by the Senate could take months, observers say, and repairing the damage done to the credibility of those agencies could be slow. Efforts to mandate mask wearing or limit gatherings could face opposition, and how soon a vaccine or effective new treatments arrive is largely out of a president’s control. But a Biden administration could make headway against the pandemic by encouraging and coordinating a wide range of tactics including mask wearing, physical distancing, testing, contact tracing, and the development and distribution of treatments and vaccines.
Confront climate change.
Biden advisers say climate change is one of “the four crises” he will put a priority on addressing. (The others are the pandemic, the economy, and racial injustice.) Biden says the United States will rejoin the Paris climate accord on his first day in office—which he can do with the stroke of a pen—and he will issue executive orders to strengthen climate protections. Advocates want him to roll back Trump rules that weakened limits on power plant emissions set by former President Barack Obama, and to set even stiffer limits for cars than Obama did. Overall, Biden wants the United States to cease to be a net emitter of greenhouse gases by 2050, and the federal government to invest at least $1.7 trillion over 10 years in clean energy technologies.
Achieving that ambitious agenda will likely require that Democrats control the U.S. Senate. Even with a Democrat-led Congress, however, Biden might only have a 2-year window, as the party in power often loses control of one chamber of Congress in midterm elections. Biden could also face pushback from conservative judges, especially on the Supreme Court, if he relies heavily on executive authority to push his agenda.
Change course on foreign policy.
A president has great leeway in deciding how the United States interacts with other nations, and research groups hope Biden will move aggressively on several fronts. Many want the country to re-engage with Iran to revive the nuclear deal—from which Trump withdrew in 2018—that limited its ability to produce nuclear weapons. Biden says he will “offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy” if Iran “returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal.”
Another tough challenge will be establishing the rules for U.S. research collaborations with China. Under Trump, law enforcement agencies, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and other agencies have stepped up investigations of scientists who failed to disclose funding ties to foreign institutions, leading to criminal, civil, and administrative punishments. Many of the known cases involve researchers who were born in China or had links to Chinese institutions. Critics say the effort has been racially tinged and has also hindered efforts to recruit foreign-born talent. They hope Biden will ease the scrutiny. But Biden has traditionally been a defense hawk, and China’s harsh treatment of Uighurs and other religious minorities may limit moves to ease tensions.
On immigration, industry groups and universities hope Biden follows through on promises to ease restrictions on visas for students and high-skill workers. And some have applauded Biden’s vow to protect the so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, and end Trump’s de facto ban on immigrants from many majority-Muslim nations.
Reverse Trump environmental policies.
Environmental scientists have a long wish list. They want Biden to undo changes in how agencies review the environmental impacts of major projects and evaluate the risks posed by toxic chemicals, which critics say downplay the risks and inflate economic benefits. The Environmental Protection Network, made up of former Environmental Protection Agency officials, wants Biden to kill a proposed rule that could bar the agency from using health and other data that can’t be made public because of concerns about patient privacy or trade secrets.
Conservation scientists, meanwhile, hope he will block federal permits for several high-profile energy and mining projects, including proposed pits in Alaska and Minnesota that threaten aquatic habitats. Paleontologists are looking to Biden to restore fossil-rich lands that Trump removed from several national monuments in western states, while ocean scientists want him to reimpose fishing limits that Trump lifted at a marine monument off the coast of New England.
But many of Trump’s environmental policies could take years to unwind because of lawsuits and federal rules that require extensive comment periods. Democratic control of the Senate, however, could speed the process: Under a rarely used law, just a simple majority of both houses is needed to cancel rules finalized near the end of the Trump administration. (Republican lawmakers used the law to void many Obama-era rules at the start of Trump’s term, when they controlled both chambers of Congress.)
Insulate health agencies from politics.
Biomedical researchers have been appalled by the Trump administration’s baldly political moves to influence the work of NIH, CDC, and FDA. Those moves have included ordering NIH to cancel a grant that supported research into bat viruses in China, because Trump alleged—without evidence—that the pandemic virus escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan involved in the project. Trump also blocked or rewrote CDC and FDA policies and guidance that contradicted his views on the pandemic. And he instituted a de facto ban on using fetal tissue from elective abortions in research.
Biden promises to “let science lead,” raising hopes that he will reverse these moves and end political interference in the health agencies. Researchers are also optimistic that Biden will select a stellar replacement for NIH Director Francis Collins, whom many expect to depart after 11 years in the job.
Go big on spending.
Keeping the economy afloat through the pandemic will require massive federal spending, Biden says, and he will likely ask lawmakers to approve a host of spending initiatives early in his term. Universities and research groups want some of the money, saying federal science agencies need tens of billions of dollars to help them recover from the pandemic. And clean energy advocates are hoping the stimulus package would make combating climate change a clear priority at the Department of Energy (DOE). “We’ll see much more pressure on [DOE to do work] that might lead to reductions in emissions,” predicts Elgie Holstein, senior director for strategic planning at the Environmental Defense Fund and a former DOE chief of staff.
To pay for new spending, Biden is likely to propose restoring higher taxes on the wealthy and killing programs he sees as wasteful. One potential target is the Space Launch System (SLS), NASA’s troubled heavy-lift rocket for the human space program. The SLS has cost $20 billion so far and, after years of delays, isn’t scheduled to launch until late 2021. Many NASA observers argue that commercial space firms, such as SpaceX, can do the job for less.
Still, with budget experts warning that the federal government’s debt is soaring to record levels—it will soon exceed the size of the entire U.S. gross domestic product—the pressure to contain spending will grow. And tax revenues may fall if the economy continues to struggle, crippling Biden’s ability to advance his agenda.
Reinvigorate the scientific workforce.
Under Trump, many researchers who work for the federal government have said they don’t feel valued or respected. Employee surveys show job satisfaction at several science agencies has taken a nosedive, and there have been many anecdotal reports of researchers leaving their jobs. Biden says he wants to reverse that trend, starting by replacing Trump appointees who have suspect scientific credentials or hold views far out of the mainstream. “The house cleaning could be remarkable; in some cases you are going to see hacks who are flat-out science deniers replaced by appointees who not only understand the science, but have done it themselves,” says one lobbyist who requested anonymity because he still interacts with the Trump administration. Others speculate that Biden might raise the profile of science—and improve morale—by quickly filling the White House science adviser position. (Obama named John Holdren to do the job the month before he was sworn in.)
But it could take years to rebuild the expertise that some agencies have lost, a union that represents public employees warned earlier this year. And former government officials say a Biden administration will also need to strengthen current policies to protect researchers from political interference. Rick Spinrad of Oregon State University, Corvallis, a former chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says, “What we have seen [under Trump] is abuse and violation of scientific integrity policies—with no consequences.”
With reporting from Adrian Cho, Jon Cohen, Warren Cornwall, Jocelyn Kaiser, Jeffrey Mervis, Erik Stokstad, Paul Voosen, and Meredith Wadman.