It’s official — the president

has a science problem

Published October 01 2017

President Donald Trump’s first week in office gave us hints that his administration would view science differently than we were used to. It started with reports of gag orders restricting government scientists from speaking to the press and included a travel ban that trapped foreign-born scientists in pseudo-detention at airports across the country while their immigration statuses were scrutinized.

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The ASBMB Public Affairs Advisory Committee released a statement in September condemning President Donald Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Read the statement.

How the White House views science has changed drastically with this administration, and we’ve been vocal against policies that have the potential to negatively affect the scientific enterprise. The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology has released statements on the importance of diversity in the scientific workforce, talked with lawmakers and administration officials about the important role foreign-born scientists play in American innovation, and proudly supported the March for Science held earlier this year. We also voiced strong opposition to the president’s proposed budget cuts, which would have decimated nondefense discretionary spending broadly — and funding for scientific research specifically.

Thanks in part to consistent advocacy efforts, Congress soundly rejected the president’s calls for a nearly 20 percent cut to the National Institutes of Health, instead increasing NIH funding by $2 billion for the second straight fiscal year. Those advocacy efforts continue to bear fruit as both the House of Representatives and the Senate have proposed large increases for the NIH for fiscal 2018. Unfortunately, more work must be done to ensure that the National Science Foundation begins seeing steady budget growth as well.

While the president has kept Francis Collins on as his director of the NIH and France Córdova continues her tenure as NSF director, many science positions in and around the White House remain unfilled. Beyond a skeleton staff with no real leadership or policy direction, no one currently staffs the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. The OSTP has served previous administrations as chief science advisers to the president. Under President Barack Obama, for example, the OSTP director was considered part of the president’s Cabinet and was present in a variety of policy debates.

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, or PCAST, remains inactive, and it is unclear if Trump will extend the PCAST’s charter, set to expire this fall. In addition, science officials across the federal government continue to leave the administration. In August, after Trump’s controversial statements about white supremacists demonstrating in Charlottesville, Va., Daniel Kammen, the science envoy for the Department of State, resigned, citing Trump’s rhetoric and policies.

When Trump has named appointees to science-related positions, those appointees rarely have had scientific experience. In March, Trump named Michael Kratsios as the U.S. chief technology officer, even though Kratsios’ expertise lies not in technology development but in investments in technology. And Trump’s nominee for NASA administrator is not a scientist but rather a former pilot and current member of Congress.

The administration clearly has priorities other than science. And that reality — while frustrating — is somewhat understandable. From nuclear proliferation to terrorism to immigration and health care reform, the U.S. faces a variety of policy problems. The president would, however, be better served by bringing scientists and scientific expertise into the debate to understand how his policy decisions affect the American scientific enterprise.

Benjamin Corb Benjamin Corb is director of public affairs at ASBMB. Follow him on Twitter.