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Scientists’ Top Concerns in Trump’s America

Scientists discuss their biggest concerns for President Trump’s impact on STEM research.

On the campaign trail, climate change denier Donald Trump kept mum about his intentions for scientific research. But Trump's comments on issues such as public health and the environment left little to the imagination.

Our country's incoming leader not only rejects most science, but has actively endeavored to sow its distrust. To be a scientist today, when public and political perception of STEM research is complicated at best, means navigating an endless blitz of career concerns and professional vilification.

The day after Trump won the election, I questioned a diverse group of scientists, whose expertise ranges from physics to ecology, about how they believe their research will be affected during his term. Overwhelmingly, their responses revealed feelings of anxiety, frustration, fear, and exhaustion. Most dreaded cuts to funding and hiring freezes, while some speculated that STEM's gender problems might even worsen.

Drastic cuts to research funding

"The Republican Congress will be emboldened to alter the merit review criteria for NSF [the National Science Foundation], which will either minimize or forbid support for climate change research," Terry McGlynn, a professor of biology at California State University Dominguez Hills, told me.

"I was recently on a panel at NSF this fall, and when talking to people there, it was clear that a lot of the plans for research support were 'pending the outcome of the elections' as funding is on a continuing resolution status. NSF might be gutted, or maybe it'll flatline, it won't get more money, and funding for some kind of work might be forbidden."

These fears aren't unsubstantiated, considering Trump has repeatedly vowed to abolish and defund important scientific institutions, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In an interview with FOX News last year, the president-elect called the EPA "a disgrace," and assured the environment would "fine" without it. As the agency in charge of regulations that keep our air and water clean, its elimination would be unthinkable for the environment and human health.

President Obama visits NIH to discuss ebola research with Dr. Nancy Sullivan. Image: Flickr/NIAID

Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), America's biomedical research arm that's already scraping the bottom of its appropriations barrel—even with a request for an $825 million funding increase under President Obama's 2017 fiscal budget—could be starved under Trump's administration. In 2015, Trump denigrated the institution as "terrible," though his actual plans for NIH funding, like many other policy items, remain unclear.

What is certain, however, is that his running-mate, current Indiana Governor Mike Pence, fought ardently to advance his own Christian conservative viewpoints with regard to science. In a 2009 op-ed for The Hill, the creationist governor wrote a screed opposing stem cell research, and promised to block to use of federal funding for such projects. During his time in office, Pence also voted against Food and Drug Administration regulation of tobacco products, and has extensively pushed to ban abortion rights for women.

Alongside Trump's alleged picks for Health and Human Services secretary, which include Florida Governor Rick Scott and failed presidential candidate Ben Carson—both of whom want to cut access to abortion rights and women's health services—Trump's tentative administration is looking unsympathetic to medical research.

"[Scientists] have been hearing for a long time that funding is tough—ever since the recession—and they've been hoping it would slowly get better. They have now been blindsided by the sudden realization that it's potentially about to get much worse really fast," Alberto Stolfi, a molecular biologist and postdoctoral associate at New York University who receives NIH funding, told me.

He also pointed out that scientific research creates job opportunities. "Beyond those directly involved in the research, there's a whole economy of companies and people who support the research. When people talk about tax payers' money being 'wasted' in scientific research, it's not like that money just disappears. Most of it goes towards buying equipment, chemicals, software, paying for services, maintenance, repairs, etc, which all create countless local jobs. All those businesses, small or large, and the people who work for them also stand to lose a lot from lower research funding."

Immediate and unprecedented federal hiring freezes

Some concerns, however, are more immediate. In a statement issued by his campaign yesterday, Trump said he would issue a hiring freeze on federal employees nationwide. The Washington Post noted this wouldn't be an effort to cut costs, but would be a measure to clean up corruption.

Because of this, many of the researchers I spoke to weren't sure whether their jobs will exist in a month or two. The trouble with Trump's scorched-earth approach is that a large percentage of government scientists are contractors whose salaries are paid for through grants. The message this could send to early-career researchers is that federal employment is simply unviable.

Chemist and National Science Foundation grant recipient, Jasmine Hatcher, at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Image: Flickr/Brookhaven National Laboratory

"In my work, the majority of scientists are not federal employees, but contractors or postdocs on temporary grants. This leads to a lot of people cycling through, projects getting picked up and dropped off over a few years. The contractors have little in the way of job security and benefits and are much cheaper to maintain than full federal employees," said Corey McDonald, a physicist who currently works at a government laboratory.

"I'd say [the hiring freeze] shuts out the possibility for people who have worked a long time towards a full federal position."

Another source, who requested to remain anonymous, said the staff at their large research institution believe it's unlikely a contingency plan will emerge in light of Trump's hiring freeze and potential funding cuts.

Negative impacts to student careers and mental health

At universities, many of which also receive federal funding for scientific research, staff are similarly worried about the effects that budget cuts will have on students, both mentally and professionally.

"Funding cuts have contributed to grade inflation, which in turn contributes to an erosion in the quality of education. The reason is that adjuncts and other non-tenured faculty are tremendously motivated to get positive student reviews, and the only reliable way to get positive reviews is to grade generously," Aleta Quinn, a postdoctoral professor of philosophy of science at California Institute of Technology, told me. According to Quinn, job stability can directly correlate to grading when professors are worried their perception could threaten their employment.

One of the outcomes of teaching students, Quinn added, is "the process of them becoming active voices in their disciplines…realizing that they are participants in knowledge-generation and sharing, not just absorbers of information… If my job goes away, their excitement and joy goes away, and my ability to comfort and help them goes away. To the extent that science and academia in general goes away, the joy of knowledge generation and sharing and participating in human culture is lost."

Rachel Olsson, an ecologist at Washington State University who studies the impacts of bumble bee health, said she's especially disturbed by Trump's desire to gut the Department of Education.

"While I don't believe this will happen, a lot of his supporters see universities and research institutions as propaganda machines. My worry here is that even an attempt to disband the education department will validate or reinforce those feelings. Since a lot of the natural resource research being done is supported by government funding, I worry these dollars will go away. Dollars that support the generation of new knowledge, and new scientists."

Threats to the safety of women and minority scientists

In addition to matters of funding, many scientists are also intensely fearful for their minority colleagues and students—women, LGBT, and POC—whose demographics were targeted during Trump's ascension to the presidency.

STEM fields are notoriously hostile toward women, with numerous well-documented cases of sexual harassment coming to light in recent years. The election of Trump, a candidate who once bragged about sexual assault on tape, could signal to harassers that this type of behavior is acceptable. For women in science, this is unacceptable and a risk they cannot afford.

According to one source who requested to remain anonymous, gender issues have only worsened within their discipline, and they believe these acts will continue to go unreported for fear of career retaliation. Under President Trump, whose policy proposals seem to work against LGBT individuals, they also suspect that bias toward transgender people in STEM could become socially legitimized.

The imminent threat of Trump's deportation plan is another source of anxiety for scientists with undocumented family members, and even those who rely on visas to remain in the country. In a study published to Demography in 2011, the number of foreign-born scientists and engineers working in the United States was estimated to have doubled around the turn of the century. International students now account for more than half of the advanced STEM degrees awarded by American universities.

"I teach in a minority-serving institution, and nearly all of my students are members of ethnic minorities and women. Some of our students have undocumented family members...This is terrifying for these students, and we can't really process this any more at the moment," McGlynn said.

"But overall, one of the reasons our research is important is because of the broader impacts of this work on our local community and the research training and access to STEM careers provided to first generation students, and those in underrepresented minorities who aren't getting a fair shake into accessing the research community. Is the federal priority for diversifying STEM going by the wayside?"

Finding a way forward

Yet, in uncertain times, there's always opportunity for progress.

During an interview with ScienceDebate.org, Trump took a surprisingly rational stance toward science and innovation.

"Scientific advances do require long term investment. This is why we must have programs such as a viable space program and institutional research that serve as incubators to innovation and the advancement of science and engineering in a number of fields… Conservation of resources and finding ways to feed the world beg our strong commitment as do dedicated investment in making the world a healthier place," he stated.

Students visiting the National Science Foundation's Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research facility in Iowa. Image: Flickr/Iowa NSF EPSCoR

In the absence of any hard facts right now, is this enough to remain optimistic?

Perhaps this is all best summed up by an op-ed published today by Jeremy Berg, editor-in-chief of Science. In it, he urged his peers to use their skills to bridge the gaping divides that have only widened during this election. Like so many others trying to find a bright spot in these times, he emphasized the importance of channeling American resolve, and commitment to the values we cherish.

"It is important to understand the basis for the divisions across the United States and elsewhere. The tools of social science should be harnessed to better examine these divides," Berg wrote.

"The United States now ventures into somewhat uncharted territory with a President-elect who will come into office with no experience in governing and relatively vague positions about many aspects of domestic and foreign policy. Moving ahead productively will be an important test not only for American institutions, but for everyone."

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