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What does a Trump Administration Mean for Science?

Discussion with the UIUC Science Policy Group

February 10, 2017


On January 27, 2017, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) Science Policy Group hosted the panel discussion “What does a Trump Administration Mean for Science?” featuring faculty members Donald Wuebbles, Clifford Singer, and Jonathan Coppess. To an audience of over two hundred people, these experts weighed in on how the new administration could affect science policy, and how citizens can influence their actions.

With the new administration, a budget decrease in scientific funding is possible. The panel organizers were interested in whether researchers and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students feel threatened by the possibility of there being significant changes within their fields. In the preface to the panel, Professor Gregory Girolami pointed out that since the 1960s, the percentage of U.S. federal spending on science has declined from 6% of U.S. gross domestic product to a much smaller percentage. After the budget sequestration mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act to decrease the federal deficit resulted in further cuts to science, a UIUC petition to reverse the cuts was cosigned by over ten thousand people.

Although the political rhetoric over the last couple of weeks has not looked promising for the scientific community, the panel made clear that now is not the time to panic. “Wait and see,” Donald Wuebbles advised. Jonathan Coppess added that while there definitely will be changes, like there would be with any new administration, you should not get lost in the rhetoric. Things won’t automatically change, he reassured the audience, “There will have to be legal decisions and reviews that may reverse some of these decisions.”

Dr. Weubbles went on to explain that though he is a bit concerned since has a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to study the particulate matter and air quality, major changes like dismantling the EPA are easier said than done. He expects that, once the administration has settled in, other nations will exercise their influence, and tensions with the EPA will ease up. Additionally, he believes that economics will keep pushing forward the switch from coal to natural gas, and solar and wind power will continue to advance. Even a pipeline that a recent presidential executive order tried to facilitate, Dr. Coppess, expects, may face litigation. However, it is impossible to know what will happen in the long run, which is why it is crucial that scientists make themselves heard in government.

In order to be effective on issues concerning the environmental threats from climate change, it is necessary that individuals not only advocate through protests but more importantly by providing information to legislators and becoming involved with community leadership. While Dr. Singer is not opposed to protests like a scientist's march on Washington, he warns that using that strategy could build a confrontational relationship with supporters of the current administration. “The real work is done quietly by talking to legislators, their staffs, and other government officials.” Cliff Singer pointed out that scientists who want legislators to be well-informed need to get information directly to congressional staffers in the form of concise and factual reports so they have materials to reference when legislation is being written. He asserted that even involvement at the local level is valuable, citing how important his years on the city council were to his understanding of political processes.

Jonathan Coppess added that science policy discussions need to be humanized so that the implications and value of scientific findings are understood. Dr. Coppess explained that policymakers seek reelection, and for that reason, any arguments around policy are most effective when they tie back to how constituents or the nation as a whole will be impacted whether it be through economics, job provision, or innovativeness.

Scientists can guide the debate that forms legislation. Scientists should continue to counter misinformation, exclaimed Donald Weubbles, “In science, there are no ‘alternative facts.’” His takeaway message was, “Don’t get depressed, and keep fighting” […] “[Congress] takes the information I send them and seldom does it bounce back.”

“The facts may not have changed the vote this time, but eventually they will get through,” promised Jonathan Coppess, “Stay engaged and register to vote. Every election has value.”