Tech & Science

Trump: The most anti-science president ever?

RTX2OU1N
11/25/16
In the Magazine
Donor blood samples. If Donald Trump persuades Congress to cut taxes, federal funding for scientific research might be cut. Michaela Rehle/REUTERS

In his victory speech in the early-morning hours on Wednesday, President-elect Donald Trump said he would rebuild the nation’s highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools and hospitals. He promised to “finally take care of our great veterans” and double the nation’s economic growth. “Nothing we want for our future is beyond our reach,” he proclaimed.

Except, perhaps, clean water, clean air, limits on greenhouse gases, solar power, wind energy, protection of fish stocks, medical research, advances in information technology, support for basic and applied medical research, space exploration and protection of biodiversity, which is as important for our food in the future as it will be for the protection of endangered species.

None of those topics came up during that speech, perhaps because Trump is, at best, woefully uninformed about most science and environmental issues. At worst—as indicated by his repeated assertion that climate change is a “hoax” perpetrated by the Chinese to cripple American business—he is antagonistic toward the entire scientific enterprise.

“Trump will be the first anti-science president we have ever had,” Michael Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society in Washington, D.C., told the journal Nature. “The consequences are going to be very, very severe.”

When Trump has talked about science, he’s often done it seemingly with little thought or preparation, and he seems to quickly forget what he’s said on the topic, because he rarely returns to it. When conservative talk-radio host Michael Savage volunteered in an interview with Trump to take over as director of the National Institutes of Health—the most widely admired medical research institution in the world—Trump said he thought that would be wonderful.

“You know, you would get common sense if that were the case, that I can tell you. Because I hear so much about the NIH, and it’s terrible.” Trump provided nothing to explain that slam, or to back it up.

If Trump persuades Congress to cut taxes, as he has promised, federal funding for something will have to be cut—and that something could be scientific research. “Trump has indicated little respect for the findings of science,” David Kravets wrote for Ars Technica. “He has openly repeated the long and frequently debunked suggestion that vaccines can induce autism…. And his science policy plans, where they exist, completely reflect this disdain. For energy, he plans to do the exact opposite of what would be required to address climate change, and he plans to seek a wholesale culling of federal regulation regardless of whether there’s a scientific basis for the rules.”

Matthew Herper, a science and medicine correspondent at Forbes, wrote the day before the election that Trump “lacks even a basic understanding of science, both as a body of facts and as a method for understanding the world.” The journal Nature endorsed Hillary Clinton, Herper notes. And he recalled that during the recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa, which killed at least 11,000 people, Trump tweeted: “The U.S. cannot allow EBOLA infected people back. People that go to far away places to help out are great—but must suffer the consequences.”

The most substantial record of Trump’s views—or the views of his campaign staff—comes from answers to a questionnaire developed by Science Debate.org, a policy group that has been promoting the idea of a science debate among presidential candidates. It didn’t get its debate, but Trump, along with Clinton and third-party candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein, filled out the 20-question document.

Asked about the value of research, Trump acknowledged that it requires long-term investment, but his only examples were space exploration and “institutional research.” Regarding global warming, he said, “There is much that needs to be investigated in the field of ‘climate change.’”

Asked about the importance of protecting biodiversity, he railed against “unelected officials who have been writing rules and regulations that cater to special interests,” which “punishes the people who should benefit the most from the protection of species and habitat in the United States.” He did show some interest in medical research when he said that “we must make the investment in treating our fellow citizens who suffer from severe mental illness.”

Asked about public health more generally, he wrote that “our efforts to support research and public health initiatives will have to be balanced with other demands for scarce resources.” Achieving Trump’s idea of balance could mean dismantling Obamacare, which Trump has said is one of his first goals.

It’s unclear what kind of on-the-job training Trump will get with regard to scientific and environmental issues when he moves into the White House. He might grow into a better understanding of the value of research and its value in promoting economic growth and reducing human suffering. Or he might get the opposite advice from a Cabinet secretary eager to tell Trump what he wants to hear.

Or it’s possible he will stick with the ideas that seem to have helped him during the campaign. When he observed that the nation was in crisis, his response was “I alone can fix it.” Asked about the battle in the Middle East against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), he said, “I know more than the generals do.”

Sheer bluster can be effective in politics, as Trump has demonstrated with his successful but unorthodox campaign. Decisions on scientific and environmental issues are different. Political wrangling over funding and priorities should be tempered with a dispassionate assessment of scientific evidence and the testimony of experts. Trump (“I know more about ISIS than the generals do”) has shown that he does not work that way.