Can the nightmare become a dream?

What Trump’s election could mean for science and technology – if we keep our heads


BRUSSELS - I woke up early Wednesday morning at 5am with a nightmare. As I groggily fumbled for my phone in the dark to check the news, I realised that it wasn’t a dream at all: Donald Trump really was likely to be the next President.

My world, and that of Science|Business, is admittedly narrow. We care about geeky things like gene splicing, smart grids, climate models or Horizon 2020 success rates. Though I, myself, am an American expatriate (32 years abroad), our usual interest in US affairs is restricted to such issues as an EU-US deadlock over collaborative research funding (just resolved last month), or how the European Open Science Cloud (don’t ask) will fit or not fit with US cloud plans.

But a bombshell like Trump’s election breaks through the static in every field, every sector. What many fear, of course, is that something worse may follow – or as one guest at a US election debrief organised by news site Politico suggested, are we reliving the 1930s? Brexit and Orban yesterday, Trump today, and then maybe Austria, France, the Netherlands and others will join the demagogue shuffle. It brings to mind Plato’s warning that the only form of government worse than democracy is tyranny, and one can easily degrade into the other.

The impact – by sector

But it helps to analyse things rationally. We are starting that in the accompanying article looking at what Trump’s election could mean for a few areas of our science and technology world. As a guide, you can read what Trump promised to do in first 100 days, in a “Contract with the American Voter” that his campaign drafted in October.

Military research will be a winner. Trump’s demands for Europe to pay more for its own defence happens to coincide with a growing European interest in collaborative military R&D, to offset Russia and thwart terrorists. It will strengthen arguments for the EU to increase spending on dual-use technologies – drones, cyber-security – in what’s left of Horizon 2020, and what is planned for the next Framework Programme. We may even cross a red line, and for the first time include direct military research in those programmes (at the least, a €25 million pilot project for EU military research gets a tailwind.)

Any trans-Atlantic collaboration on climate research seems a losing game, given Trump’s assertion that global warming is a Chinese hoax. Indeed, if his campaign pledges are to be believed, US energy policy generally may lurch sharply towards coal, oil and gas and away from renewable energies – putting the US sharply out of synch with energy-research priorities in the rest of the developed world. This will be bad for US-EU collaboration in this field – but it may open a window for the EU to push ahead with its own green R&D agenda with Canada, Japan, Korea and China. Wind, solar, grid management and related technologies are all fields in which the EU already has arguably the world’s strongest R&D base, and among the strongest industrial sectors in the world. The good news for Europe, then, could be in the opportunity to break out faster into green energy than it otherwise would – to double its bet, in the belief it’s the right strategy not only for the world, but for its own global competitiveness. Twenty years from now, we might see European renewable energy giants striding the world, much as American Internet giants do today.

Can you teach an MEP to tweet?

For other sectors, however, the impact is harder to guess. His comments on health focused on repealing Obamacare, and gave no hint of whether he views medical R&D and pharma pricing as important issues or not. On ICT, he vowed to make Apple bring its iPhone manufacturing home from China, and was loudly opposed by much of Silicon Valley (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, in particular, now finds himself in an uncomfortable spot as owner of Trump’s No. 1 media nemesis, the Washington Post.) But nobody has proven a better master of Twitter than Trump, suggesting he at least understands that tech matters. (European politicians now want to learn: Hours after Trump’s win, the European Parliament blasted out invitations to a special conference on social media for November 15 and 16 that will include talk of how he used it.)

Another post-Trump theme will be youth. The voting patterns, in both the US and UK, showed the greatest generation gap since the 1960s. Millennials do not think like Baby Boomers. As youth throughout history, they are of course more idealistic. But their interests are also different: green, socially responsible, tech native and open to new people and ideas.

Europe’s governments should move quickly to harness this new political force. In science and technology, that could mean more educational and research programmes targeted solely at the young and their concerns. Initiatives like the European Research Council’s Starter Grants for researchers in their late 20s and early 30s should become the norm, not the exception, in science policy – and programmes could now reach down to university undergraduates and secondary schools. For starters: The EU should empower a group of young researchers and entrepreneurs to advise on its Framework planning – or at least bring down the average age of the so-called High Level Group that the Commission has asked former WTO chief Pascal Lamy to lead.

Science|Business will follow these issues in the months ahead. We also want to hear from you, if you have ideas for EU R&D priorities.

Yet there are also some broader questions at stake. This election, and Brexit, bared the deadly disconnect between the more educated and the less educated. They demonstrated the populist disdain for ‘experts.’ In such a climate, what is a sector – research – that is all about creating knowledge to do?

Just jobs and growth?

To start with, it could help create a vision. Why do we acquire knowledge, anyway? That question needs a better answer if scientists in the US, Europe or anywhere else are going to continue to get any research funding whatsoever in this new, harsh world. Trump, in his victory speech, promised investment in infrastructure – but to him that may mean roads and bridges, not labs and talent. We see the same brick-and-mortar tilt already in the Juncker Plan’s investment projects.

But the answer to why science matters should not be because it creates jobs and growth. For the past decade, that has been the standard line for any university rector or lab director trying to pry more money from the national finance ministry. It’s true; scientific breakthroughs create industries, somehow, somewhere, sometime. But jobs and growth also come from plenty of other things, like tax breaks for industry or adding extra airport runways. What makes science special?

Surely, what’s special is that science provides the knowledge to imagine a better world. Europe is splintering over immigration. Can social scientists tell us how to integrate refugees into society more effectively than just building a wall? We’re getting poorer. Can some bright economist get to the bottom of why market crashes like 2008 really happen, and how they can be avoided? We are living longer but sicker. Can biologists find a way to delay the ageing process? We aren’t managing this planet very well. Can astronomers and space engineers lift our minds, if not our bodies, into the stars?

That is the mission of science: to inspire. One positive effect of Trump’s election is in our own control. It can provide a kick for us all to rethink why and how we do science, plan research policy, and engineer the future. That way, this nightmare could become a dream.

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Related subjects: Climate change, Defence research, Trump