Alternative Science? The future of science research in Trump’s America

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By: Lloyd Lyall

Trump’s attitudes on medicine and the environment might be some of the most striking disavowals of science in the modern world. The president has labelled climate change a “hoax created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing noncompetitive,”2 and claimed “new ‘environmentally friendly’ lightbulbs cause cancer.”3 Fracking poses “zero health risks,”4 and vaccines cause autism.5 Quelling dissent is easy: criticism is fake news, and vulnerable claims are simply alternative facts.

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Trump speaking at a rally in Phoenix, Arizona, August 2016. [Image- Gage Skidmore/ Creative Commons]1

So far, these tweets truly do seem to reflect policy. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and US Department of Agriculture were saddled with gag orders days after Trump took office and ordered to withhold their research from the public.6 Scott Pruitt, who has sued the EPA fourteen times over issues ranging from water protection standards to  cross-state air pollution, is now in charge of it.7 And while Trump’s final funding plans are still in the works, a draft budget circulated to agency heads on February 27th  proposed slashing the EPA budget by 25% and firing 3,000 EPA staffers. The draft promised the Obama-era Clean Power Plan and the EPA’s Global Climate Change Research program would be eliminated; more than 40 other EPA research agendas would lose between 30% and 95%  their funding. In the era of Trump, what will happen to America’s government-funded science?

Big Data Gets Small

One important role of government science funding is to support the collection and distribution of data that otherwise would not exist. The reason is that large-scale data collection suffers from a collective action problem: although the scientific community (and society) as a whole benefits from access to data sources like satellite imagery and comprehensive seismic tracking, no individual university or research institution could justify funding these projects alone.

NASA’s Earth Science division, for example, makes monthly satellite images freely available to researchers around the world. Geographers and meteorologists use its daylight imagery to track weather patterns; economists use its nighttime luminosity grids to track economic growth target and target aid dispersal. Trump has threatened to defund the division.8 The US Geological Survey issues freely-available datasets on hydrologic conditions and biodiversity to the public;9 the UC Berkeley-supported WorldClim project stores decades of worldwide monthly climate data specific to the square kilometer under a Creative Commons license. The free availability of such comprehensive scientific data has dramatically increased the diversity of researchers that can access.

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A snapshot from NOAA’s nighttime satellite luminosity dataset. Economics researchers use the strength of nighttime lights to proxy for economic development. [Image- NASA Earth Observation Group/ Creative Commons]

However, these datasets need such large-scale collection that government is often the only actor big enough to build them. Launching the satellites required to provide NOAA data is an enormously expensive task, and one unlikely to be taken up by an individual private sector institution should government back away. Additionally, even if private organizations took over collecting mass-scale data, the data’s availability would be greatly restricted: datasets would either remain hidden from the wider research community or made available only at astronomical cost. Research collection in these areas often features natural monopolies – it makes zero economic sense to have two competing companies launching satellites to provide climatic data – and hence whichever company takes up the mantle will be shielded from competition and free to keep prices high.

Plenty warning of the coming war on big data collection is already out. For example, Trump’s February 27 draft budget promised to stop funding the collection of methane emissions data from the oil and gas industry.12 Crippling federal science agencies and defending their data-collection efforts will threaten the availability of big science data- and cripple the efforts of those wanting to use it.

The Private Sector Takes Charge?

While some research may disappear altogether, other research may suffer a slightly different fate: delegation to the private sector. For-profit private research bodies- like R&D divisions of firms and think tanks- may become the primary drivers of scientific inquiry. There are many reasons to fear this change.

First, the distribution of research will be slanted: private actors may leap to fund flashy or monetizable issue areas, but “non-sexy” research may be passed over. Unfortunately, these non-sexy issues are often some of the most important for society: drugs for diseases that disproportionately affect the poor (like HIV/AIDS), land-use research in impoverished communities and national park conservation strategies all come to mind. Additionally, the private sector has less incentive for replication: there is no money in confirming a result that has already been established, but replication is essential to ensure safety and accuracy in high-stakes industries like health. A witty opponent might respond that stricter government regulation can force replication, but then, Trump is likely to loosen these safeguards too.

The private sector may also deliberately choose not to fund research that threatens to undercut its profit structures. Medtronic, for example, makes billions of dollars annually selling medical control devices for Type 1 Diabetics.10 The company would never fund research into curing the disease because a cure would instantly remove its product market. Hence, government-issued research grants have funded a vast proportion of Diabetes cure research. Under a Trump administration that limits funding for these projects, America’s 1.25 million type one diabetics (and millions more worldwide) may be left abandoned.11

While Trump’s political order threatens to condemn American science to the darkness, the resistance is alive. After their presidential gag order, National Parks and EPA staff “went rouge” on masked Twitter accounts to continue tweeting climate facts. “Marches for science” are being organized across the country. And hope is not gone: though mass data collection is a task beyond individual research organizations, strong state governments may be able to take up the mantle of coordination where the federal government drops it. California, for example, coordinates the best public research university network in the world. In the words of California Governor Jerry Brown, perhaps “we’ll launch our own damn satellites.”

References

  1. Milman, Oliver. (2016). “Donald Trump would be the world’s only national leader to reject climate science.” The Guardian. Retrieved 1 March 2016 from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jul/12/donald-trump-climate-change-science-sierra-club
  2. Krauss, Lawrence M. (2016). “Trump’s Anti-Science Campaign.” The New Yorker. Retrieved 1 March 2016 from http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/trumps-anti-science-campaign
  3. Editors of Scientific American. (2016). “Trump’s comments on science are shockingly ignorant.” Scientific American. Retrieved 2 March 2016 from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/trump-comments-on-science-are-shockingly-ignorant/
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Hiltzik, Michael. (2017) ”Trump is at war with science and knowledge, and that should terrify you.” Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 1 March 2017 from http://www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-hiltzik-trump-information-20170125-story.html
  7. Devlin, Hannah and Alan Yuhas. (2017) “‘Science for the people’: researchers challenge Trump outside US conference.” The Guardian. Retrieved 1 March 2017 from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/feb/19/epa-trump-boston-science-protest
  8. Milman, Oliver. (2016). “Trump to scrap NASA climate research in crackdown on ‘politicized science.’” The Guardian. Retrieved 1 March 2017 from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/nov/22/nasa-earth-donald-trump-eliminate-climate-change-research
  9. “GIS Data.” United States Geological Survey. Retrieved March 1 2017 from https://www.usgs.gov/products/maps/gis-data
  10. “Medtronic Annual Income Statement (NYSE:MDT).” Amigobulls. Retrieved 1 March 2017 from http://amigobulls.com/stocks/MDT/income-statement/annual
  11. “Statistics About Diabetes.” American Diabetes Association. Retrieved 1 March 2017 from http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-basics/statistics/?referrer=https://www.google.com/
  12. Holstein, Elgie. “The severe, real-world casualties of Trump’s EPA budget cuts.” (2017) Retrieved 12 March 2017 from https://www.edf.org/blog/2017/03/03/severe-real-world-casualties-trumps-epa-budget-cuts

Cover image: “optical illusions” by medithIT is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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