Scientists are concerned and troubled by the Trump administration

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Scientists are concerned and troubled by the Trump administration

Research could wither if the federal funding it depends on becomes scarce or disappears.

Following the election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States, doubt is now cast on the future stability of federal investment in funding of basic scientific research. As Michael Lubell, the director of public affairs for the American Physical Society, told Nature, “Trump is the first anti-science president we have ever had. The consequences are going to be very, very severe.”

Since the election, we’ve conducted an informal, qualitative survey amongst our network of scientists to better understand how they feel about the future of scientific research. We also asked them how we might support science in the years to come. The importance of science communication and public support of science is echoed by almost of all of our respondents. Their overwhelming consensus about science funding was this: while finding money today is extremely competitive but workable, many scientists and academics are concerned that any research with a global focus, like climate change and public health, will wither if funding becomes scarce or disappears completely.

There have been a number of surveys, formal and informal, of scientists in the past months, all of which ask important questions about the fears of the scientific community. The Science Advisory Board conducted a global survey (you can examine the raw data here) of scientists in November, and Nature has collected a number of scientists’ responses post-election. One thing is certain; scientists are questioning their own role in the public’s increasing distrust of scientific thought, and asking themselves how they might act to change the public’s perception of scientific research.

What do scientists have to say?

Carrie Brown, a senior technical consultant for Resource Refocus, an energy efficiency consultancy, says that currently “DOE funding seems to be doing well enough,” but she has “dire concerns under the next administration” because “they already have an ‘energy independence’ plan that relies heavily on oil, gas, and coal.”

Douglas Paton, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says currently funding is “functional, but reliant on federal sources like the NIH and NSF.” In the future, he says he’s afraid of losing funding because, “our research is primarily for the benefit of poor communities overseas and I am concerned that the incoming administration will de-emphasise these areas.” He makes clear that he is “as worried as anyone about what’s going to happen, and that we do what we do (for the most part) to benefit everybody.”

Tatiana Dolgushina, a graduate student in biology at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, answered our question about should be done to increase awareness of science:

“Communicating science to the general public…academic journals are extremely out of reach, both to the general public and to academics outside of an institution. It is totally backwards that scientists have to publish in academic journals to build their careers, but the public can’t easily access these same academic journals to know about new research.”

Gordon Ober is a postdoctoral researcher at Claremont McKenna College, studying Marine ecology and climate change. He tells Massive that in his field “funding exists, but is very competitive. That being said, studying hot button topics in climate change make finding funding a little easier.” He “absolutely” expects funding to change under the Trump Administration. He says, “my fear is that science as a whole will not inform this incoming administration. Climate change deniers are likely going to be put in powerful positions resulting in decreased funding opportunities for climate scientists.” As a climate scientist, he says, “I cringe when I hear people scoff at the notion of global warming.”

Audrey Horst, a 3rd year PhD student studying molecular biology and infectious disease at Boston University, tells us that while current funding is “competitive but manageable.” She says, “I don’t think funding in my field will drastically change (NIH-related), but I assume there will be a general reduction in scientific funding across all disciplines except perhaps defense-related investigative spending (DARPA, etc.).“ She also makes it clear that, “governmental funding is absolutely necessary in developing steadfast, objective knowledge through research.”

Current state of science funding

According to the National Science Foundation, in the United States the federal government is the largest funder of basic research and the second-largest funder of applied research after business.

Basic research “is driven by a scientist’s curiosity or interest in a scientific question” and “not to create or invent something,” while applied research “is designed to solve practical problems of the modern world,” as defined by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Given that there are no or limited financial rewards for performing basic research, the role of government in this funding is crucial. As the 2011 Economic Report of the President states, “basic scientific breakthroughs in engineering, genetics, chemistry, and many other fields underpin commercial innovation but provide little or no direct profit themselves, so basic scientific research relies heavily on public support.”

The NSF further reports that the Department of Defense has historically made up more than half of federal science funding, while “the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Department of Commerce (DOC), the Department of Defense (DOD), the Department of Energy (DOE), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)” all reported R&D funding of more than $1 billion in 2013. Defense related research captures most federal funding, while agriculture, energy, and health spend most of the rest.

It’s this uncertainty in funding that has most scientists we surveyed on edge. A reduction in the federal government’s commitment to funding basic scientific research, especially in fields where finding funding is competitive, will not only threaten our ability to innovate and advance knowledge, but also the very careers of the scientists doing this research.

"I am greatly concerned that funding for vector biology, vector-borne diseases, and scientific research in general will decrease during the Trump presidency. Under an Obama presidency, Congress fought and delayed funding for Zika research for nearly 7 months largely because of a Republican-led effort to bar funds from going to Planned Parenthood clinics. The outcome of such inaction will have tangible consequences on human health in the United States and abroad. This past year in the face of a shortage of funds to fight Zika virus, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was forced ‘to poach money that otherwise would have gone to addressing cancer, tuberculosis, malaria, Ebola, substance abuse, mental health, and the needs of children and families.’ (Jon Cohen, Science Magazine, Oct. 3 2016).” — Perrine Marcenac, biologist, Harvard University

The first step towards more widespread activism advocating for support of scientific research is already happening, like this pledge from 800+ earth and energy scientists on climate change and this pledge from over 12,000 women scientists supporting open science. We will continue to follow the stories of scientists and members of the public as they fight to keep federal and public support of science a priority.