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Big on Twitter, Little on Facts- Will this be the fate of science advice under Trump’s administration?

March 17, 2017
By: 
Kamiel Gabriel

Scientists in the US fear the United States under Donald Trump could become like the Soviet Union, in which the prevailing political ideology was so powerful that science was unable to contradict it with hard evidence. Speaking at the beginning of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in Boston last week, its president, Professor Barbara Schaal, and chief executive, Dr Rush Holt, both expressed concern about the use of the phrase “alternative facts” by Trump administration officials. Dr. Rush Holt, CEO of AAAS was quoted to say: “Science is not a political construct or a belief system. Scientific progress depends on openness, transparency and the free flow of ideas and people”.

And they have a good reason to fear……

Since the 1950’s, US presidents maintained personal science advisors in the White House to provide science-informed advice in key areas affecting domestic and foreign policy issues. Starting with the first science advisor, Mr. Vannevar Bush, who had the ear of president Truman, and was a key figure in marshaling and coordinating civilian and military scientists to develop and deploy new technologies during World War II. As the head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), Bush made significant strides in establishing a scientific stronghold in the U.S. by creating the National Science Foundation to promote and fund excellent research and development activities at universities and higher education institutions across the U.S.

In the mid-seventies, Congress established the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to provide the president and policy makers with sound advice related to domestic and international affairs. While the director of that office didn’t have a cabinet rank, OSTP worked alongside other offices in the White House to lead interagency efforts in developing and implementing sound science and technology policies and set the Federal S&T budget to meet the nation’s aspirations in spurring innovation.

The U.S. presidents relied heavily on the advice received from the OSTP and its director in developing the nation’s research and innovation priorities and suggesting the means by which they are to be realized. This was mainly accomplished through the budget allocated to R&D activities in major federal departments and granting agencies. Among these departments, with the lion’s share of the federal R&D budget, is the Department of Defense which enjoys a healthy estimated budget of US$78 billion in FY17. The National Institute of Health comes second with a budget of US $30.9 billion, followed by the Department of Energy and NASA at a combined budget of US$26 billion1.

The skilled workforce has been created in part through investments in STEM education and training programs directly aimed at supporting areas of domestic and national priorities. Many U.S. universities rank at the top list of world renowned research institutions thanks in part to being able to attract world 1 Guide to the President's Budget: Research and Development FY 2017, AAAS article, March 22, 2016. (http://www.aaas.org/news/two-year-budget-deal-means-room-rd-growth.) renowned scientists to their ranks. The reputational assets of such institutions have vastly contributed to the development of many of the disruptive technologies we enjoy today. Examples can be cited in many areas but suffice to mention examples like the internet and the host of technologies that supported its development to become the main tool for social and professional interactions; trade and shopping, travel and hospitality services, transportation and numerous apps that were developed on its backbone. These technologies, and many others, were the impetus to creating an entire new economy based on new industries that employed hundreds and thousands of citizens across the U.S. and elsewhere.

President Trump has made it his campaign mantra to make America great again and reinvigorate the U.S. economy by retaining companies in the U.S., and applying hefty trade fees on products developed outside the U.S. and later brought into it. But, would this be sufficient to invigorate the science and research community to continue its quest for more inventions and the creation of disruptive technologies? Will such protectionism policies spur innovation? The answer is clearly NO.

As stated in my recent book 2 “research excellence and a sophisticated business environment lie at the heart of successful innovation economies. In an economic process animated by pure and applied research, it is the interplay of the research and business communities that fuels innovation-driven economies. Initiating, activating, and strengthening these systems in a jurisdiction is foundational to the growth of its economy and should be central to a jurisdiction’s Science & Technology strategy.”

President Trump can certainly use science and innovation to better achieve his goal of restoring America’s lost manufacturing jobs and creating new jobs through “moonshot-type” initiatives that propel the American ingenuity as it did in recent past. Taking lessons from history, Mr. Trump will greatly benefit from retaining a respected science advisor and the director of the office of Science and Technology Policy. It is our hope that his administration will not lose sight of the pivotal role that science advice plays in setting and deploying the national science and innovation strategy in the U.S.

Let’s be optimistic and hope for the best!

Kamiel Gabriel is the founding associate provost of Research and Graduate programs at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, and the former ADM Research and Science Adviser at the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation.
 

 

1 Guide to the President's Budget: Research and Development FY 2017, AAAS article, March 22, 2016. (http://www.aaas.org/news/two-year-budget-deal-means-room-rd-growth.)

2 “The Anatomy of Innovation-What makes innovation succeed in the 21st century”; available from Amazon.ca