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What the Outcome of the Election Means for Science

November 12, 2020

On Saturday, November 8, President-elect Joseph R. Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris addressed the nation, both mentioning the importance of science in their brief remarks. In his transition documents, Biden has identified four priorities: COVID-19, Economic Recovery, Racial Equality, and Climate Change. For each of these priority areas, the administration would be well served to consider what we have learned from the behavioral and cognitive sciences. Presidential administrations and Members of Congress influence the scientific enterprise in several important ways: presidential appointments to leadership positions; federal budgets; and policies and practice including Executive Orders; and set the tone for public confidence in the reliability of scientific finding, including reliability of the U.S. statistical infrastructure.

Experts from nearly every field of science – from climate change to biotechnology to health have criticized the Trump administration’s record on science. Scientific American made the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history, picking Biden for his “fact-based plans to protect our health, our economy and the environment.” In addition, the National Academy of Sciences President Marcia McNutt and National Academy of Medicine President Victor Dzau issued a joint statement expressing alarm over “ongoing reports and incidents of the politicization of science, particularly the overriding of evidence and advice from public health officials and derision of government scientists.”

Here is what the outcome of the election could mean for science over the next four years.

Presidential Appointments

An incoming President has thousands of political appointments across the government to make. This takes tremendous vetting and considerable time and is an indication of the importance that an administration places on these positions. For example, the Trump administration had been in office for nearly two years before appointing a Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), also known as the science advisor to the President. By contrast, a group of science and technology policymakers from previous administrations have been continuously and actively developing a list of potential science appointees. FABBS contributed to a broad science transition memo for OSTP. In addition to urging the new administration to act quickly to appoint scientists to key positions listed below, FABBS encouraged the transition team to reinstate the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team and the National Science and Technology Council, Human Subjects Research Subcommittee (HSRS).            

  • Director of Office of Science and Technology Policy
  • Associate Director Science
  • Assistant Director for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences
  • National Board of Education Sciences (15 positions)

Budgets

For four straight years, the Trump administration budget proposals called for deep cuts to federal agencies supporting scientific research including the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Despite Trump’s proposed cuts, Congress successfully staved off spending reductions, and has increased funding for science. During this time, we have seen increased bipartisan support for science budgets, with particular attention to technology and innovation. Biden has indicated his intention to increase the federal investment in funding research and development.

Science Policies and Practices  

Experts from nearly every field of science — from climate change to biotechnology to health — have criticized the Trump administration’s record on science. Based on election results in the House and Senate, the science community can reasonably hope to see progress to advance science and increase budgets to continue in the upcoming Congress. Most of the policies and practices that have threatened the advancement of science have come in the form of executive orders from the Trump administration.  A key area of concern has been around how actions of the administration, coupled with the disruptions caused by the pandemic, could impact international collaboration. In the past, China and the U.S. have benefited from close student and researcher collaboration on science and technology. In recent years, there have been increased reasons for concern about unethical foreign interference and federal agencies have stepped up efforts to prevent such behavior. However, the Trump administration has proposed and enacted severe visa restrictions for student and scholars, arguing they protect American jobs. However, the university, business, and immigration policy communities counter that foreign talent benefits U.S. competitiveness.  Biden has made promises to ease restrictions on visas for students and high-skilled workers.

A Look at the New Congress

Senate

Even before the election, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), a strong voice for science and chair of the Senate HELP Committee, had announced his retirement. Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO), a champion for science and supporter of the Golden Goose Award, lost his seat to former Governor John Hickenlooper. Senator Gardner had worked closely with fellow member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, Senator Gary Peters (D-MI), passing bipartisan bills to reauthorize numerous research programs across federal science agencies.  Senator Peters won a tight race. The committee is chaired by Senator Roger Wicker (R–MS), who easily won reelection in 2018 for a third 6-year term. Senator Joni Ernest (R-IA), who has in the past challenged individual grants as ‘silly sounding’ or wasteful spending, also won her race. Leadership of Senate Committees will not be determined until after the Georgia run-off for two Senate races.

House

After 32 years in Congress, Chair Nita Lowey (D-NY) will retire from Congress having served as Chair of the House Appropriations Committee. Chairwoman Lowey was a strong advocate for science and education budgets. Several Members will be competing for this leadership position. Also a loss for the science community is the retirement of longtime champion for the National Science Foundation (NSF) Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY), who served as Chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science. Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA), having won his close race, is in line to be the next chair.

Leadership of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, with the broadest mandate over the U.S. research enterprise including the NSF, is expected to remain the same. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) will continue as chairwoman after another clear victory, and Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) is expected to continue as the ranking member. Reps. Johnson and Lucas have worked together in a bipartisan manner holding numerous important hearings including on the impact of COVID-19 on the science infrastructure and advancing legislation to eliminate sexual harassment in STEM. There will be some reshuffling of the leadership of Science subcommittees. Freshman Kendra Horn (D-OK), who chairs the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee lost her bid for reelection. The only Ph.D. physicist in Congress, Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL) remains in his seat, and he chairs the Subcommittee on Investigations & Oversight. Reps. Lizzie Fletcher (D-TX), Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ), and Haley Stevens (D-MI) (after a narrow victory) will also be returning to Congress after their successful races. Looking ahead to the next session, the science community hopes to see a visionary reauthorization of NSF, including a doubling of the annual budget.

The upset for Rep. Donna Shalala (D-FL) was a loss for the science community, as she served as health and human services secretary and the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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