Disastrous. Damaging. Catastrophic. Those are just some of the more polite terms that many U.S. scientists use to describe the policies of President Donald Trump. His handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, his repeated public dismissals of scientific expertise, and his disdain for evidence have prompted many researchers to label him the most antiscience president in living memory.
Last month, that sense of betrayal led two of the nation’s preeminent scientific bodies, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine, to issue an uncharacteristically harsh rebuke. Although the 24 September statement did not name Trump, it was clearly aimed at the president.
“Policymaking must be informed by the best available evidence without it being distorted, concealed, or otherwise deliberately miscommunicated,” the leaders of the two academies wrote. “We find reports and incidents of the politicization of science, particularly the overriding of evidence and advice from public health officials and derision of government scientists, to be alarming.”
Although many U.S. scientists share those sentiments, other aspects of the administration’s overall record elicit a more positive response. Ask researchers how federal funding for their fields has fared since Trump took office in January 2017, and they might acknowledge sustained support and even mention new opportunities in some areas. Inquire about what they think of the appointees leading the federal agencies that fund their work, and they will offer some good—even glowing—reviews.
Those seemingly contradictory responses reflect the complexity of an $80-billion-a-year system that remains the envy of the world. Any president trying to alter that behemoth has three levers to press—policies, budget requests, and leadership appointments.
To analyze Trump’s record in each area, Science has talked to dozens of researchers, administrators, and lobbyists. Many asked to remain anonymous because they have ongoing interactions with the administration.
Most scientists give Trump exceedingly low marks in an arena where he has perhaps the greatest authority: foreign affairs. His unilateral decisions to pull out of the Paris climate treaty, the Iran nuclear deal, and the World Health Organization are widely seen as damaging not just to global scientific cooperation, but also to the continued health, safety, and prosperity of the planet. Similarly, most scientists think the administration’s aggressive efforts to restrict immigration pose a serious threat to the nation’s ability to attract scientific talent from around the world.
In the domestic arena, Trump’s efforts to impose new policies by executive order and rewrite regulations have also drawn sharp criticism from scientists. They say the administration has routinely ignored or suppressed evidence that doesn’t support its efforts to roll back environmental regulations, including those aimed at limiting emissions of greenhouse gases. Trump has also threatened the reliability of key demographic data by interfering with the orderly completion of the 2020 census, and by telling the Department of Commerce to exclude undocumented residents from the final count.
Biomedical researchers, meanwhile, have been appalled by what they say is a de facto ban on the use of tissue derived from elective abortions in research, as well as orders to cancel a grant that Trump disliked. Such moves, many researchers believe, are designed to advance the president’s political agenda at the expense of national interests.
Fewer scientists complain about the Trump administration’s record on spending. But that’s largely because Congress has ignored the deep cuts the White House has proposed in its annual budget requests to Congress (see graphic, below).
For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the biggest federal supporter of academic research, has seen its budget rise by 39% in the past 5 years despite deep cuts proposed by Trump. The budget of the National Science Foundation (NSF) has gone up by 17% over the past 3 years, reversing the downward direction that Trump has requested and rising more than twice as fast as it did under former President Barack Obama.
Researchers working on artificial intelligence (AI) and in quantum information science are enjoying an even more rapid growth rate. In a rare embrace of large spending increases, the Trump administration has thrown its weight behind a 2-year doubling of those fields, which fuel what it calls “industries of the future.” And Congress seems amenable to the idea.
Assessing the president’s appointees is more complicated. Scientists have condemned some of Trump’s choices at agencies involved in environmental regulation or climate science, citing their meager scientific credentials or views that are outside the mainstream. The appointees are clustered at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Department of the Interior. The list also includes three recently installed senior officials at the Census Bureau, which is embroiled in controversy over its plans for completing the 2020 census.
At the same time, most scientists give high marks to the officials who lead agencies that hand out the bulk of federal research dollars (and are generally not involved in hot-button regulatory issues). That list includes the heads of NIH—Obama-era holdover Francis Collins—and NSF, where Sethuraman Panchanathan succeeded Obama appointee France Córdova after her 6-year term ended in March. Physical scientists also give good reviews to Paul Dabbar and Chris Fall, who manage the science portfolio at the Department of Energy (DOE).
A third group of Trump science appointees remains something of an enigma to the U.S. research community. They include the president’s unofficial science adviser, Kelvin Droegemeier; Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Stephen Hahn, head of the Food and Drug Administration.
The trio are considered able scientists and are generally respected by their peers. But Droegemeier, who leads the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), has disappointed many science policy insiders by failing to make good on promises to better coordinate federal policies that affect universities. “I give him an A for effort, and an F for performance,” one observer says. And all three leaders have drawn complaints for their tepid responses when Trump has disputed settled science or attacked their agencies and the scientists who work for them.
But such broad strokes paint only a partial picture of how Trump has influenced the U.S. research enterprise. Below, Science looks at how federal science agencies have fared under a president who has repeatedly boasted of “draining the swamp” in the nation’s capital.
NIH grantees feel a chill
Trump’s arrival brought fears of upheaval, but NIH watchers say the agency has managed to stay on course. Collins’s warm relationship with congressional leaders has helped win generous budget increases. And Ned Sharpless, Trump’s choice to lead its largest institute, the National Cancer Institute, has been “fantastic,” says Jon Retzlaff, chief policy officer for the American Association for Cancer Research.
In contrast, researchers say White House pressure caused NIH to launch a damaging crackdown on scientists with foreign ties (see below). They also accuse Trump of political meddling in two important issues—fetal tissue research and pandemic research. In June 2019, the White House ended funding for NIH’s in-house research using tissue from elective abortions and announced a new ethics review for extramural grants. This year, a 15-member ethics panel dominated by abortion opponents recommended approval of only one of 14 proposals that had passed review. And in April, NIH pulled a grant to the EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit organization working on bat viruses with the Chinese group that Trump accused—without evidence—of releasing the SARS-CoV-2 virus driving the pandemic.
Those actions “have sent a chilling message to scientists,” says molecular biologist Keith Yamamoto of the University of California, San Francisco. “If problems that you have a real passion to dig into are deemed politically unsound, you could be out of luck. So watch out.”
Smaller role for White House science office
Arriving 2 years into Trump’s 4-year term to head OSTP, Droegemeier promised to streamline and improve how the federal government manages academic research. But an interagency panel he created to take on the task—the Joint Committee on the Research Environment (JCORE)—has yet to reach consensus on any of the four areas Droegemeier has targeted.
“He came in all fired up, promising to make things happen,” one lobbyist says. “But so far nothing has come out of JCORE, and the research community is very disappointed.”
Research advocates do praise OSTP for helping focus more attention on AI and quantum information science. But science lobbyists say the real driver of that initiative has been Michael Kratsios, a scientific neophyte who was nominally in charge of OSTP before Droegemeier joined the administration.
Kratsios “came into the job knowing less about science than any previous OSTP head,” one university lobbyist says. “But he was eager to learn, and he listens. He’s also figured out how to use his connections to advance the administration’s agenda.”
DOE stays strong
Trump’s first energy secretary, Rick Perry, had vowed to eliminate DOE when he ran against Trump in 2016. But Perry surprised the community by becoming a champion of the department’s science mission, and his successor, Dan Brouillette, has embraced that role since taking over in December 2019. Observers also credit undersecretary Dabbar for sustaining the political momentum behind several big projects at DOE’s 17 national laboratories, including a new atom smasher to study nuclear physics at Brookhaven National Laboratory and a fast-neutron test reactor at Idaho National Laboratory.
Despite the Trump administration’s distaste for clean energy research and its conviction that private industry is the real engine of innovation, DOE’s $7 billion Office of Science has fared well. It benefited handsomely from the administration’s embrace of AI and quantum information science, where physicists and engineers try to leverage subtle quantum effects to develop more powerful supercomputers and secure communication systems. In July, for example, DOE announced it would build a prototype quantum network to connect Argonne National Laboratory, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and the University of Chicago.
Fall, who was already working for the government when he became head of DOE’s basic science shop in May 2019, thinks his office has thrived by avoiding ideological battles over the proper role of government in creating new technologies. “What we don’t do is policy,” he says. “I’m doing my level best to keep the Office of Science out of politics.”
Expert advice under siege at EPA
Given candidate Trump’s rhetoric opposing government regulation, his affection for fossil fuels, and his denial of climate change, it’s no surprise that EPA has often disregarded science in devising environmental policy. Its approach to regulating particulate air pollution—often called PM2.5 (particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter)—contains all the hallmarks of that approach, including appointing people tied to polluting industries to key posts, excluding experts from advisory roles, and using questionable methods to tip the scales when balancing benefits against costs.
Soon after his appointment in 2017, then–EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt launched several major changes that would likely help ease regulations of PM2.5, which is linked to increased heart and lung diseases and premature deaths. He banned any EPA-funded scientist from serving on advisory boards that vet proposed regulations, but kept the door open to people associated with polluting industries. (A federal court overturned the ban earlier this year.) Pruitt also installed an industry consultant, Tony Cox, as chairman of the air pollution science committee and abolished an expert panel, led by Christopher Frey of North Carolina State University, that advised the committee on the science of particulate matter.
Although Pruitt was forced out of the agency in mid-2018, his replacement, Andrew Wheeler, has followed a similar path. He declined a recommendation from agency scientists to tighten PM2.5 limits, citing a study by the reconstituted committee that found the science behind such a reduction was uncertain. The agency’s recent actions “just made the whole thing a charade,” Frey says.
EPA officials have also proposed barring the agency from considering certain scientific studies as it develops regulations if the underlying data cannot be made public because of concerns about patient privacy or trade secrets. That’s the case for some large studies on how air pollution affects public health, and for many industry-funded reviews of toxic chemicals. Researchers say the rule fails to recognize the legitimate need to protect the confidentiality of some data and will undermine the quality of EPA’s rulemaking.
Hurricane forecast batters NOAA
Home to some of the country’s premier climate scientists, NOAA managed to operate mostly under the radar until August 2019, when Trump announced erroneously that Hurricane Dorian posed a threat to the state of Alabama and apparently used a marker to alter a National Weather Service forecast showing its path. The White House and Commerce Department pushed NOAA’s acting administrator, Neil Jacobs, to reprimand weather forecasters for their correction of the president’s map and tweets. That political flap, dubbed Sharpiegate, ultimately led to the arrival last month of two new senior political appointees, David Legates and Ryan Maue, who have been dismissive of climate science.
“I have grave concerns around these appointments,” says Jonathan White, a retired Navy admiral and CEO of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership. “NOAA has the best [climate] scientists in the government, and I’m very concerned these voices will be muzzled.”
Interior questions climate impacts
As custodian for more than 1.8 million square kilometers of federal land, the Department of the Interior has been a central player in the Trump administration’s push for more oil and gas drilling. But critics say department officials have often overlooked, disregarded, or altered the relevant science, enabling them to dismiss the climate impacts of that drilling and discount potential harm to endangered species.
One early target was calculations of the economic toll from greenhouse gas emissions. Shortly after Trump took office, the department drastically reduced estimates by the Obama administration of such costs. It did so by considering only direct impacts in the United States and by reducing the dollar value of impacts on future generations.
The Trump administration has used the lower price tags to justify rolling back Obama-era limits on methane emissions from oil and gas wells, as well as carbon dioxide from cars and power plants, which fall under the authority of the Department of Transportation and EPA, respectively. But this year, a federal judge ruled the lower estimates were not defensible and that the Interior Department had tried “to erase the scientific and economic facts” used in the previous estimates.
The plight of endangered species has received little attention during the Trump administration, with the number of new species being listed for federal protection at an all-time low. The Fish and Wildlife Service, the branch of the Interior Department that decides whether a species is endangered, “just doesn’t have the institutional support to really push back when politics gets in the way of science,” says Brett Hartl of the Center for Biological Diversity, which frequently sues federal agencies over endangered species. “They’re kind of a forgotten agency.”
Relocation rattles USDA scientists
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue upset scientists with his decision to move two of the agency’s research centers—the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Economic Research Service (ERS)—from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City, Missouri. According to the Congressional Research Service, roughly 75% of the employees left the Department of Agriculture (USDA) rather than move, and many grants were delayed by several months.
Perdue said the new location would bring NIFA and ERS closer to their constituencies and save on rent. But many observers—including congressional Democrats—saw the move as an excuse to shrink ERS and diminish its ability to provide objective monitoring of myriad agricultural trends through its surveys and reports. And they worried the departures of so many veteran staff would deprive USDA of institutional knowledge and expertise that would take years to replace.
On the plus side, USDA’s decision this year to exempt certain gene-edited crops from its biotechnology regulations, potentially easing research, has been well received, says Karl Anderson, director of government relations for the American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of America, and the Soil Science Society of America. Anderson also applauds the agency’s first ever set of long-range goals, which aim to increase agricultural production by 40% by 2050 while cutting the industry’s environmental footprint in half. “I think it’s a terrific effort,” he says.
Scrutiny of foreign ties intensifies
The Trump administration’s efforts to limit or prohibit scientific collaborations with China and other countries deemed to pose national security risks have set off alarms throughout the academic community. Although separate from the president’s attempts to restrict immigration, both efforts run counter to the traditionally open environment that has propelled U.S. science since the end of World War II. Many researchers also regard them as exercises in racial and ethnic stereotyping.
The Obama administration pursued a handful of investigations, some later dropped, involving scientists with ties to China. But in the summer of 2018, NIH began to send letters to dozens of universities flagging nearly 200 faculty members believed to have hidden research support from Chinese entities. At the same time, university leaders heard themselves being accused of unwittingly handing over the fruits of federally funded research to China, the United States’s chief rival as a scientific and economic superpower.
In November 2018, the Department of Justice announced its China Initiative, making it clear that NIH’s investigations were part of a broader campaign. Several scientists have been indicted and some have pleaded guilty, although the charges typically involve making false statements to federal officials or covering up their foreign ties rather than passing along sensitive technologies.
Several agencies have taken steps aimed at learning who else is funding research by their grantees and then deciding whether those other sources pose a threat to national security. But NIH’s actions are widely regarded as the most aggressive and, thus, potentially the most harmful. NSF, for example, insists on full disclosure but only occasionally initiates an investigation, and DOE has told its own scientists they cannot participate in foreign talent recruitment programs but has not altered its rules for grantees.
“Agencies are under tremendous pressure from the White House to find guilty people,” says Stanford University physicist Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize winner and former energy secretary under Obama (and a past president of AAAS, Science’s publisher). “NSF has tried to push back, but NIH has almost completely folded.”
The country needs to defend itself against military and economic espionage, scientists say, but some worry the administration’s actions to date have already damaged the U.S. research enterprise and that additional restrictions could be fatal.
“The potential loss is hard to estimate,” Chu says. Noting the outsize contribution of foreign-born scientists to U.S. technical innovation in the past 30 years, he adds, “It’s scary to think [what would happen] if you shut that off.”
A desire for new leadership
Looking ahead to such research-based challenges as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, many scientists crave leadership that respects science. On 2 September, for example, 81 Nobel laureates announced their support for Trump’s opponent, Democrat Joe Biden. (So far, Trump has not received such an endorsement, although there was a “Scientists for Trump” group during the 2016 contest.)
In their letter, the laureates don’t mention any specific policies that Biden has championed over nearly a half-century in public office, including his 8 years as vice president under Obama. But the statement makes clear that they think a Biden administration will do a better job of interacting with the scientific community.
“At no time in our nation’s history has there been a greater need for our leaders to appreciate the value of science in formulating public policy,” they write in a public letter. “Joe Biden has consistently demonstrated his willingness to listen to experts, his understanding of the value of international collaborations in research, and his respect for the contribution that immigrants make to the intellectual life of our country.”
More than a political endorsement, the letter reflects a sense that the federal government has turned its back on science in the past 4 years and their hope that the next president will, in Obama’s memorable phrase, “restore science to its rightful place.”
With reporting by Adrian Cho, Warren Cornwall, Jocelyn Kaiser, Robert F. Service, Erik Stokstad, and Paul Voosen.