The Politics of Science under the Trump Administration

In one of the most comical moments of the 2012 election, former Governor Rick Perry (R-TX) forgot one government agency he would cut as president, known commonly as his “Oops” moment. In a great twist of irony, President Donald Trump has nominated former Governor Perry to the role of the agency he forgot: the Department of Energy. Nearly four years later and with a high-profile government job on the line, Perry had a change of heart and told Congress that the Department of Energy represents a dedicated group of scientists and engineers that are vital to the advancement and management of science and energy in the United States that he hopes to support.[1]  However, his statement could not be more meaningless. Department of Energy funding, along with the funding of multiple scientific agencies in the United States, is currently susceptible to large cuts from Secretary Perry and the Trump administration. With the administration’s censorship of government climate science and unease towards guaranteeing funding, science policy in the United States is greatly threatened by the nascent Republican administration.

To understand how science policy works under the Trump administration, a discussion on the funding of science from the government and how scientists organize themselves is required. Science funding is a billion-dollar endeavor in the United States with over $145 billion devoted to research and development in the 2016 fiscal budget.  Of that $145 billion, $68.6 billion of the budget goes to non-defense research and development and scientific development.  The funds are distributed among the United States agencies.[2]  The top agencies that receive funding are Health and Human Services ($31.04 billion), the Department of Energy (DOE) ($12.4 billion), NASA (NASA) ($12.238 billion), and the National Science Foundation (NSF) ($6.309 billion).[3]  Most of this funding goes to biomedical and health research to the Health and Human Services, which contains the National Institute of Health ($29.6 billion).[4]  Funding for biomedical and health research will not disappear, given that defunding research that could “save lives” carries enormous political risk. Therefore, the funding most at risk from being cut goes to the Department of Energy, NASA, and NSF.

The politics of science policy is organized using spokespeople and organized groups representing either specific scientific experiments or representing a specific field of science. The latter type of scientific groups are typically divided by subject.[5]  For example, all the chemists have a professional body (American Chemical Society), all the physicists have a professional body (American Physical Society), etc. In addition to these groups, government agencies and large scientific collaborations—such as the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland—act similarly to civil interest groups that represent the large body of scientists that work for the project. All these scientific projects and professional bodies use spokespeople to disseminate information to other groups of scientists and to interact with funding agencies, such as governments and nonprofits.  These spokespeople, which also act as lobbyists and communicators with the public and the scientific public, are the key bridge between scientists and the political system as they lobby and advocate on behalf of scientific interests.[6]


However, the Trump administration intends to diminish the Department of Energy and curtail the ability of spokespeople and scientists from sharing scientific information. On the topic of funding, the initial plans for the Trump administration were to levy significant cuts to government agencies after the inauguration. This included eliminating Department of Energy programs on energy regulation and fossil fuel research, but also funding to the Office of Science, specifically a cut that would take research programs in advanced computing and nuclear physics to the funding levels of 2008.[7] These cuts are not drastic and the Office of Science will continue its bigger projects in biology and high energy physics; however, the Trump administration’s secrecy towards the cuts has caused greater concern. While the proposed cuts have not actually occurred, Secretary Perry has neither confirmed nor denied the existence of cuts in 2017 to the Department of Energy.[8] Scientific projects take decades to plan, propose, build, and analyze, such as the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE) a Department of Energy funded experiment that will study neutrinos and will take an additional twenty years of research and hundreds of millions of dollars to build. Without stability and clarity from the administration, these projects are stuck in political limbo and are unable to progress.

The scarier portion of Trump’s scientific policy lies in his administration’s silencing of climate scientists studying climate change. Trump’s administration has stopped the distribution of climate change information from government scientists and it froze funding for research initiatives investigating the effects of climate change.[9] While these anti-climate change policies are intended to show an allegiance to the fossil fuel industry, the larger issue with scientists comes from trust and guaranteeing funding. If the government does not trust and permit climate scientists from advancing their research, then fears grow that the government may cut and stop research from other scientific fields. For many climate scientists studying climate change, the research represents their lifelong work. The Trump administration’s flippant behavior to please special interests and silence their findings on climate change is alarming. It sends the signal that if Trump can silence those scientists and cutoff their funding then there is nothing stopping him from stopping biomedical or physics research that his administration finds either politically dangerous or not valuable. Without this trust, science has decided to organize and fight against the Trump administration. For example, the upcoming March for Science protest in Washington D.C. on April 22nd, 2017 intends to combat the “alternative fact” mentality of the Trump administration and fight for science  regardless of President Trump’s agenda.[10]  Partnered with groups like the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Entomological Society of America, the protest hopes to push-back at the Trump administration and make it clear that scientific organizations and  trust in science must be taken seriously.[11]  However, this lack of mutual trust between scientific organizations and the Trump  administration presents a serious dilemma as the government manages the $70 billion budget that scientists desperately need for research at universities, industries, and national laboratories. While deep cuts are not on the immediate horizon for the majority of scientific organizations, besides some departments in the Department of Energy and climate research, more cuts and more push-back from scientific groups may occur as both sides continue to distrust each other.

If the excellence of American science is to continue, it is vital the Department of Energy and its counterparts continue receiving funding and support. It means that the Trump administration needs to provide the financial stability and freedom of speech that President Trump and his administration are refusing to. Without this assurance, the Trump administration and Secretary Perry will have their own “Oops” moment of forgetting the United States scientific community.

Works Cited:

[1] “Energy Secretary Nominee Rick Perry Testifies at Confirmation Hearing.” January 19, 2017. Accessed March 10, 2017.

[2] Matt Hourihan and David Parkes. “Federal R&D in the FY 2016 Budget: An Overview.” AAAS – The World’s Largest General Scientific Society. March 18, 2015. Accessed March 10, 2017.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Gilpin, Robert, and Christopher Wright. “Scientists and national policy-making.” 1964. 98-102.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Bolton, Alexander. “Trump team prepares dramatic cuts.” The Hill. January 19, 2017. Accessed March 10, 2017.

[8] Cama, Timothy. “Perry ‘can’t answer’ whether Trump plans DOE cuts.” The Hill. January 19, 2017. Accessed March 10, 2017.

[9] Maron, Dina Fine. “Trump Administration Restricts News from Federal Scientists at USDA, EPA.” Scientific American. January 24, 2017. Accessed March 10, 2017.

[10] Ghosh, Pallab. “AAAS chief puts weight behind protest march.” BBC News. February 20, 2017. Accessed March 10, 2017.

[11] Miller, Adam. “March for Science.” March for Science. February 23, 2017. Accessed March 10, 2017.