A lot at stake

Published November 01 2016

With Election Day just a few days away, here are my suggestions for what to watch for in the outcomes and their possible impact on the scientific community.

Obviously, the big headline grabber is going to be who will be the 45th president of the United States. In previous columns and in numerous postings on our science policy blog, we have shared what a Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton presidency might look like. The president will help to shape some of the scientific priorities of the country. Will the next president take as warmly to science as President Barack Obama has, or will science, and advisers like those in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, find a diminished role in the next administration? Key cabinet-level and agency-head appointments to watch will be the nominees for directing the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the OSTP.

The president can set the country’s agenda. Vice President Joe Biden famously has said, “Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” It’s the U.S. Congress that controls the purse strings. The political makeup of the 115th Congress really will influence research budgets. A Republican majority in the House following the election, for sure, will keep the House focused on cuts in spending. However, the previous Congress was supportive to the research community (particularly the NIH) and made important attempts to support biomedical research. Unfortunately, proposed increases to the NIH budget remained tangled in conservative fiscal policies, making increases possible but difficult. A Democratic majority in the House likely would lead to drastic changes in fiscal policy, which could benefit the research community. A Democratic majority in the House is also not particularly likely.

Should Democrats take back control of the Senate, which they lost in 2015, it’s likely that we’ll see more support for research budgets. However, the gridlock isn’t likely to be unraveled. Thanks to senatorial rules and our hyperpartisan politics these days, a simple majority in the Senate isn’t likely to influence policy all that much. In order to move from debate to voting on legislation, in most cases, a supermajority of 60 senators must vote to end debate. It is not likely that we will see a supermajority for any party after the election.

With research agency budgets on the line and mandatory spending caps set to drop again, thanks to the 2011 Budget Control Act, there is a lot of work to do. There is a lot at stake for the research community. The election night results will give us our first glimpse into how some key policy debates may play out in Washington in the next two years until the midterm elections.

Benjamin Corb Benjamin Corb is director of public affairs at ASBMB.