Let me begin with some context. A few months back, my lab were in the throes of preparing for a highly likely relocation to New York (Sloane Kettering) from Oxford. Each of us was preparing a short list of “things we would require” (funding, equipment and so on). In the end, the move fell through – maybe that Ferrari I asked for was a bit excessive – for a variety of reasons that I am not, and indeed should not be, fully aware of, and even if I was I wouldn’t be discussing many of them on here. However, one factor that was briefly mentioned was the impact of a potential Donald Trump presidency in the imminent future, especially with regards to science research funding in the US. The phrase “we’ve been Trumped” was loosely floated around, largely, but perhaps not entirely, in jest. Whether this was a genuine factor or not, it got me thinking about the potential ramifications of political events of this kind on scientific research.
Of course, this is a particularly relevant time to write about such an issue. Not only is it a matter of days until a number of us pull an anxious all-nighter watching the US presidential election, but, as you might just be aware unless you’ve spent your past few months on another planet (perhaps you wish you had), the UK is in the midst of a seemingly quite confused Brexit. I’m not going to discuss my own views in relation to either of these; people who know me well almost certainly know my thoughts, and I don’t want them to steal the limelight in this post. However, they do provide two extremely convenient examples of undoubted current relevance that I’ll delve into shortly.
In many ways, politics and science resemble an unhappy marriage; often poorly compatible with, yet inextricably linked to, each other. Many academics would, I’m sure, dearly love to work in the proverbial ivory tower, isolated from general civilisation, and indeed to some extent many do. Yet research funding, at least in the UK, quite often – though, I should emphasise, definitely not always – arises from government research councils (EPSRC, BBSRC, etc.). These councils are free to decide, independently (in theory), how to distribute their funding across research projects.
But of course, how much money they receive in the first place is determined by government ministers. It is only natural that research councils have this in mind, and, with a view to maximising the funding they receive, are surely more inclined to devote more funding to science of demonstrable “impact”, in the sense of economic growth and societal benefit that is generally of most interest to politicians. The level of funding that the government allocates in the first place presumably reflects the perceived worth of the results that said funding is generating – and I emphasise the word “perceived”, since the same results may have distinctly different worth in the minds of two different politicians or political parties. For example, a politician who doesn’t believe in climate change probably isn’t going to allocate loads of money to a research council if they in turn are using large swathes of it to fund climatology studies. So in all likelihood, the research council, whilst nominally free to make their own choices, probably won’t be doing exactly that. Science and politics are joined in a variety of ways, and as such, political events such as presidential elections, EU defections, so on, necessarily and unfortunately affect scientific research.
So, getting back to where we began, I invite you to imagine the USA with a recently elected President Trump. That invitation might be roughly as appealing as a one-way ticket to the Marianas Trench for some of you. In which case, perhaps you’d care to switch your focus to the corresponding situation with President Clinton (Hillary, I mean, not Bill…). Maybe that’s not so much better actually. But if you were a research scientist, what might the corresponding impacts be?
It’s certainly worth pointing out that science featured relatively little in the presidential debates (although given the sort of content that dominated in these, perhaps this is of little surprise). This notwithstanding, Clinton, as you might expect from someone with extensive government experience (for good or bad) and, as such, a strong cohort of scientific advisors, pledges to, for example, increase funding for the NIH and National Science Foundation. In common with most democrats, she firmly believes in climate change and the human impact on this; her agenda in this area pretty much falls in line with Obama’s current programme. She stands in support of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). But never mind what your own views are on these issues; the key point is that, whatever her flaws, Clinton and her team are undoubtedly, at the least, reasonably well informed. For example, have a look at this: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-do-the-presidential-candidates-know-about-science/. No need to read much of it, but contrast the length and depth of Clinton’s answers to those of, say, Trump.
Indeed, Trump has had rather less to say on the subject of science during the campaign, with the possible exception of space exploration, which, unsurprisingly, rather appeals to someone who would probably quite fancy colonizing Mars. But one might envisage that, for someone who has described climate change as a Chinese conspiracy (albeit later claiming this was in jest), has expressed a preference to work on “real environmental challenges, not phony ones”, and has described the NIH as “terrible”, increasing their and other scientific funding might not be a top priority. He has made reference to a link between vaccines and autism, which was itself largely the result of a now-retracted, fraudulent paper (one should note that, back in 2008, Clinton made the same link, although it was then not quite so widely discredited). His running mate, Mike Pence, is notoriously conservative, leading to justifiable concerns regarding funding in areas such as embryonic stem-cell research. He has praised the doctors who go into Africa to help fight Ebola, then suggested that all flights to and from Ebola-affected countries should be stopped. Sure, this doesn’t affect everyone, but if you’re a climatologist, a stem-cell researcher, an NIH- or NSF-funded researcher, for example, you might be slightly concerned at the prospect of President Trump, and even if not, you might be forgiven for thinking that some of the above hints at a lack of interest and/or understanding of science that might translate into reductions in funding. You might be totally wrong of course. Who knows? But, much as I mentioned for Clinton, whatever your own views are on the issues, it is Trump’s lack of information, general confusion (see the Ebola comment), and, in some cases, factual inaccuracy that must be a cause for concern. To close this, I direct you towards this excellent article in the New Scientist: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2099977-what-donald-trump-has-said-about-science-and-why-hes-wrong/.
A counter-argument – and one that might favour Trump – is that perhaps the government is too involved in science. Maybe science should be left to do its own thing more, and for sure there is substantial funding that is not government-controlled, so it would not be implausible. However, other issues may have knock-on effects too; I’m thinking particularly about immigration policies. For scientific research is a particularly international phenomenon, and, in my field at least, the USA represents probably the top destination. Trump’s proposed stricter (in polite terms) immigration controls would render it significantly harder for top institutions to attract the best international scientists, which could lower the overall quality of research.
This leads nicely on to Brexit, where the same issue largely applies; make UK entry more challenging for EU members, and you put off top European scientists from applying; essentially, you reduce the pool of scientists available to you. In a similar fashion, current EU scientists working in the UK might be slightly disinclined to remain here, and might leave, in a phenomenon termed “the brain drain”. But forget any drop in research quality that might result for a minute; on a human level, this would just be a great shame. In my lab group of around 30, I am one of just 4 British members. Our group comes from all over the world, and this kind of diversity is a real highlight of working here. It’d be sad to see that decreased.
There are funding issues too; a not-insubstantial proportion of UK’s science funding comes from the EU. The government has pledged to cover this for research projects currently receiving funding in this way, I believe until 2020 – what happens then is anyone’s guess as far as I understand. I’ve heard slightly sad stories of UK scientists being dropped from EU-funded projects because of the “risk”. And, especially in the current “in limbo” situation, how awkwardly uncertain does it feel applying for funding that is European in origin? At present, the UK is still in the EU, but it’s not hard to imagine that European funding programmes might prefer to give their money to someone who is, well, actually going to still be in the EU in a couple of years time.
Of course, be it the presidential election or Brexit, there are many, many other issues aside from science to consider. But there is little doubt that political events such as this necessarily affect scientific research. I can only hope it is not drastically for the worse.