Sunday, November 20, 2016

Will Trump Be a Disaster For Science Policy? Part II

Read part I here.

On certain science policy issues, Trump's critics have overstepped. We covered the most popular examples in part I. Now let's look at a few subjects where Trump may have some explaining to do. A bit later we'll get into the good things Trump is likely to do for science.


On vaccines Trump appears to be truly awful, if his 2012 comments are any indication. Moreover, during the campaign this year, the President-Elect met with prominent anti-vaccine advocates. According to Science, he spoke favorably of the vaccine-autism link and promised to watch some woo-filled documentary about the subject.

There are a few intervening factors that may sway Trump away from pursing policies that are in line with his previous statements about vaccines, however. The first, of course, is that Trump is a good salesman if he's anything at all. And every salesman knows you don't disrespect people whose money and support you're after. Telling the folks from Age of Autism that they're utterly insane would've been an unlikely way to earn their votes.

 Politicians, after all, are known for their duplicity, and I wouldn't put it past Trump to smile, shake someone's hand and promise them what they want, only to ignore them later on down the line. This is usually a downside to the political process. In this case, though, it could mean President Trump stays away from vaccine quackery.

On a related note, politicians sometimes bow to pressure from advisers, bureaucrats, and other powerful interests inside and outside of Washington, even when they truly do support a cause. Trump could do the same, secretly harboring oddball views on vaccines while publicly shelving any policy that could do harm to public health. Just compare Obama's campaign promises to what he did once he took office to see the most recent example of this phenomenon at work.

We'll have a chance to test this possibility, too. As Science points out, Trump will soon have the opportunity to appoint some important public health officials. This is assumed to be a bad thing, since Trump could very well appoint a vaccine denier. But because there are so few qualified physicians and researchers who espouse any degree of skepticism around vaccine efficacy, Trump will be choosing from a pool of mostly pro-science candidates. He would have to go out of his way to appoint a crank of Andrew Wakefield's caliber. None of this is to excuse Trump should he embrace anti-vaccine hysteria in office. That would be shameful on his part, and we should all say so if he does.


Crop biotechnology is another subject on which Trump has been ambiguous, but his comments here have been a little clearer and give me some hope that he'll come down on the side of science. The Genetic Literacy Project reported last month that Trump said agricultural policy should be determined largely by the market, and mandatory labels for genetically-modified food have nothing to do with free-market economics. GLP also pointed out that Trump took down a tweet which suggested that GMO corn may cause "issues in the brain." He also told the Iowa Farm Bureau that biotechnology should be used in food production and food labeling rejected.

The potential upsides of Trump's science policy

We've covered the worst examples where Trump has strayed from accepted scientific wisdom. So let's look at a couple of issues where Trump is likely to advance science.


Trump has made some very encouraging comments about nuclear power, arguing after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan that "[i]f a plane goes down people keep flying. If you get into an auto crash people keep driving.” He has also said that we need to continue developing our ability to produce natural gas. This is the flip side of Trump's climate policy; climate change skepticism typically goes hand-in-hand with a desire to produce more energy, so Trump will very likely pursue policies that make energy production far easier.

Science Funding

There's been much hand wringing over the possibility that Trump will slash science funding because of his comments about climate change. The critics, ironically enough, don't see that they're shooting themselves in the foot. On one hand, they say the science of climate change is settled, and don't you dare question your betters who have studied the subject in great depth, Mr. business mogul man! But they then turn around around and lambaste The Donald for his supposed unwillingness to pursue climate research. These people clearly can't think forward.

But being both a real estate developer and a populist candidate interested in rebuilding the country, it's likely that Trump won't shy away from funding science research, which Republicans are pretty good at historically. And much like Reagan, Trump's skepticism of big government will probably wane when it comes to building infrastructure and investing in basic science projects. Specifically on the question of climate science, there are questions left unresolved and worth researching. The problem, as climatologist Roy Spencer has explained, is that they center around natural climate variability. Those kinds of questions can't be used to justify an expanding EPA and the kinds of wealth-transfer climate change mitigation programs the IPCC is so eager to push.


What we have in Trump when it comes to science policy seems typical of recent presidents: some good, some bad and a lot of unknowns. Science, sadly, really hasn't been a key issue in any presidential election in recent decades, so we have little more to go on than a handful of public statements and the resulting speculation. We'll just have to see what happens.

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