Election 2016: Trump’s Science Policy Remains Unclear

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Publication date: 
17 November 2016
Number: 
143

President-elect Donald Trump has promised to reverse Obama’s climate change actions and rescind the Iran nuclear agreement, but his positions on research funding are unknown.

This article was first published in the Politics and Policy section of Physics Today.

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President-elect Donald Trump at a June rally

Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Phoenix, Arizona, in June. The president-elect’s position on science remains a mystery beyond his opposition to the Paris climate and Iran nuclear deals. 

(Image credit - Gage Skidmore)

The incoming administration of Donald Trump is a blank slate on science policy. Trump’s priorities, which presumably have a viable path to enactment with a Republican-controlled Congress, may become clearer once the president-elect chooses a science adviser and the Cabinet members for key science-related agencies. Until then, scientists and government officials are focusing on two initiatives Trump opposed during his campaign: climate change regulation and the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

The clearest and likely most immediate science-related consequence of the election will be an effort to overturn the Obama administration’s actions to curb climate change. Trump has famously called climate change a hoax, and he promised during the campaign to cancel the 195-nation climate change agreement that was reached in Paris last year with U.S. leadership. He has named the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Myron Ebell, a climate change denier and a vocal opponent of Obama’s climate policies, to head the transition at the Environmental Protection Agency. In a September interview with the Washington Times, Ebell called for the Senate to prohibit all funding for the Paris climate agreement and the underlying U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

But former assistant EPA administrator Jeff Holmstead says “there is no practical reason” for Trump to back out of the Paris agreement because it isn’t a treaty and therefore imposes no legal obligations on the U.S. Trump would incur only international political consequences for ignoring the Paris commitments and following through on his stated plan to revive the U.S. coal industry and encourage more domestic and offshore oil and gas production.

On the other hand, Holmstead says, Trump is “virtually certain” to revoke the Clean Power Plan (CPP), the centerpiece of Obama’s climate change policy. That administrative action to impose limits on carbon dioxide emissions from new and existing power plants is now being litigated in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit; a decision is expected around the time Trump takes office. At issue is whether the Obama administration exceeded its authority in imposing the new regulations without enabling legislation. If the court were to strike down the CPP, of course, no action would be required on Trump’s part.

David Goldston, director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, says that multiple states and environmental organizations would challenge an EPA attempt to rescind the CPP. The Supreme Court has established the EPA’s obligation to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, he argues. But he also acknowledges that the agency could alter the way it regulates CO2. Holmstead says arguing that the EPA is legally required to implement the CPP “is a pretty uphill battle.

Although repeal of the CPP would certainly be a blow to the environmental community, the decline in coal generation will continue due to economic forces, chiefly the low cost of natural gas. Trump’s pledge to cut regulations on oil and gas drilling is likely to encourage further gas production, which will ensure that prices remain low for some time. Goldston agrees that the general trend of carbon emissions reductions will continue without the CPP, although the slope will be less steep.

Trump has also promised to repeal the 2015 accord by which Iran agreed to drastically curtail its uranium enrichment and end its plutonium production in exchange for the lifting of some economic sanctions. But because the nonbinding agreement (it is not a treaty) involves the world’s five major nuclear powers and the European Union, rescinding it would be diplomatically difficult.

Scrapping the nuclear deal also would likely face significant opposition from businesses that have now made investments in Iran, says Josh Zive, a trade expert at the law and lobbying firm Bracewell LLP. What’s more, most of the economic sanctions the U.S. has imposed on Iran remain in place despite the deal, says Zive, who predicts a more symbolic rejection of the deal by the incoming president.

Uncertainty looms

Beyond climate and Iran, President-elect Trump has had virtually nothing to say about science or research. The people he names to top positions may offer some insight, but those appointments could take time. President Obama nominated science adviser John Holdren on inauguration day, and Holdren was confirmed by the Senate as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on March 19. (The science adviser is dual-hatted as OSTP director, but only the second post requires Senate confirmation.) George W. Bush waited until June 2001 to nominate John Marburger, who wasn’t confirmed until late October.

Some scientists fear that federal funding for research will be squeezed if Trump follows through on his promises to dramatically increase defense spending while cutting taxes, protecting entitlements, and not increasing the deficit. “What are you going to do? The answer is you’re going to cut other discretionary programs,” which include R&D, says Michael Lubell, director of public affairs at the American Physical Society, an AIP Member Society.

Goldston, a former chief of staff with the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, agrees that the size of the overall spending budget is the main determinant of science funding. But he adds that it’s possible research would fare somewhat better in a conservative administration that curtails spending on other government programs.

Rush Holt, executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a former congressman, points out that Congress has at least as much to say about research spending as the White House does. Although House and Senate appropriators consider administration requests, they generally use the previous year’s spending as a baseline when marking up new appropriations bills. That puts a damper on dramatic year-to-year changes. Moreover, appropriators have a tradition of bipartisanship that is largely absent from other congressional functions.

Trump has promised a massive program to restore the nation’s crumbling transportation and other physical infrastructures. Science might be included in that rebuilding effort; Lubell recalls the $20 billion in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that was devoted to “shovel-ready” construction of scientific facilities at the National Institutes of Health, Department of Energy national laboratories, and elsewhere. Excluding the 2009 stimulus bill, non-defense R&D spending rose 4.3 percent in constant 2016 dollars during Obama’s tenure.

Another unknown is whether Trump will support continuation of the production tax credits, grant-making authorities, and other subsidies that have spurred the explosive growth of wind and solar energy during the Obama years. Although some conservatives in Congress are ideologically opposed to government intervention in free markets, Trump, as an investor in buildings, “probably sees no problem with a fair amount of subsidy for advanced and renewable technologies,” says Scott Segal of Bracewell.

As for NASA, a recent Space News op-ed coauthored by former Republican Science Committee chairman and Trump space adviser Robert Walker lamented that the agency has “been largely reduced to a logistics agency concentrating on space station resupply and politically correct environmental monitoring.” Walker told a Federal Aviation Administration advisory committee last month that NASA should set a goal of sending humans throughout the solar system by the end of the century. He also encouraged NASA to shift money from Earth and climate science to “deep space achievements.” And Walker said he personally favored returning Americans to the Moon as a stepping-stone to Mars.

With so much in flux, Holt encourages scientists to make their voices heard. Holt says,

[Trump] will surely notice the sizeable investments other countries are making in science—Korea, China—both friends and competitors. He will surely recognize that in any administration there always have been and always will be crises involving science, whether it’s swine flu, Zika virus, oil well blowouts, or any number of other things. He surely will be open to input on how to prepare.