‘The embarrassment is over’: Researchers and EU officials cheer as Biden is set to take White House

07 Nov 2020 | International News

The Democratic candidate appears Saturday to have gotten over the line in the US election, prompting an outpouring of relief and celebration after four years of tumult. President Trump has refused to concede

President-elect Joe Biden and vice-president-elect Kamala Harris

Story updated November 9

The science world joined in a long-awaited celebration Saturday evening as Joe Biden appeared to have won the White House, defeating Donald Trump and ending a presidency that shocked the world and scorned science.

The race was called by media organisations and the Biden campaign on Saturday after four slow and uneasy days of counting in a handful of swing states. He pulled into a commanding lead in Pennsylvania, a key state, around noon Saturday and quickly started making plans for his transition to the White House. His first move is the appointment of a COVID-19 tsar Monday. Still, Trump disputed the call and said the election was “far from over”, tweeting: "I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT!”

The result would make Trump the first one-term US president since George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton in 1992. With the Pennsylvania votes, the 77-year-old Biden claimed 273 out of 538 available electoral college votes that determine the presidency under the US Constitution. That cleared the bar of 270, making it nearly impossible for Trump to get a second term unless his campaign’s legal challenges somehow manage to get traction – an unlikely event.

But in the global research and innovation community, the party was on.

“That Biden has won is a big relief. The embarrassment is over,” said Robert-Jan Smits, president of Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, and the European Commission’s former director general for research and innovation. “Science will once more get the position and recognition it deserves.”

Trump was notorious for his disregard for science in office. “Donald Trump has been the worst president for science within my lifetime and probably in the entire history of the United States,” said Albert Teich, research professor of science and technology at George Washington University.  

He waited 19 months to hire a science adviser, pulled the country out of the international Paris climate accord after calling climate change “a hoax”, and side-lined the government’s top infectious diseases specialist, Anthony Fauci. Trump himself has repeatedly downplayed the seriousness of a virus that has killed over 230,000 people in the US, shunning masks and physical distancing and staging large rallies. He made the baseless suggestion that bleach could be a cure for the virus. And as record-breaking wildfires burned across northern California on his watch, he criticised the state for not raking away dry leaves.

“[Trump] has actively promoted pseudoscientific, crackpot ideas on life and death matters, especially the current pandemic. A Biden Administration will herald a return to sanity in Washington,” said Teich.

Biden made the president’s lack of respect for science a key point in his campaign. In comments misjudging the mood of the nation, Trump mockingly warned that Biden would “listen to the scientists” if elected. Biden relished the remark, replying that the US needed a leader “who believes in science and listens to someone other than himself.”

Researchers came out strongly against Trump in the months leading up to the election. In a survey conducted by Nature, roughly 86 per cent of 579 scientists planning to vote said they supported Biden and named the coronavirus and climate change as their top issues.

Now, many see Biden’s presidency as an opportunity to draw a line under four tumultuous years. “I foresee the beginning of a new era of EU-US science cooperation based on trust and mutual respect with a focus on the enormous challenges our planet and societies are facing: climate change, infectious diseases and security,” added Smits.

Science policy under Biden will look familiar to anyone who remembers the Obama era, Teich agreed. “We will see the appointment of qualified individuals to key positions, a return to international agreements, including the Paris Accords, a reversal of Trump's draconian visa policies, and a restoration of the openness to international cooperation in research and policy which the scientific community had taken for granted before 2017.”

In his first official act as president-elect, Biden is due to unveil a former surgeon-general as the co-head of his coronavirus advisory board on Monday. Vivek Murthy, who was the surgeon general from 2014 until 2017, will take the role as co-chair, along with a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, David Kessler. The Biden team has also unveiled a website, BuildBackBetter.com, and a Twitter account, @Transition46. 

Biden’s moving on but Trump has still not recognised Biden’s victory and has falsely claimed the election was stolen, raising questions over whether the incumbent will impede Biden as he tries to establish a government.

On Saturday evening, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen signalled some relief of her own, saying in a statement that the bloc “stands ready to intensify cooperation with the new Administration” on “tackling climate change together” and “fighting COVID-19”. It was no secret that European leaders struggled to work with Trump, who called the EU one of America’s “biggest foes”.

The relief at Biden’s victory, coming after his third bid for the White House, spread across the European capital Saturday night. “It is the start of a return to reason and reliability, which for security issues, foreign affairs, global trade and climate action will make a huge difference,” said member of the European Parliament Hilde Vautmans, who is a coordinator of the foreign affairs committee for the liberal Renew Europe group.

Science diplomacy “has been AWOL during the Trump administration,” said James Moran, associate senior research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies, and a former EU diplomat. “Now, with Biden’s longstanding belief in multilateralism and international cooperation, we can look forward to seeing Washington coming back to the table, and that can only be a good thing for Europe and the world at large.”

Biden’s science and technology vision leans heavily on overhauling the nation’s energy system in an almost-$2 trillion climate change push. He has offered a “historic investment” in energy and climate research and innovation as part of his ‘Clean Energy Revolution’ to achieve a 100 per cent clean energy economy and drag the country out of its pandemic recession.

The president-elect is also pledging $400 billion for climate research and innovation over 10 years. “That’s twice the investment of the Apollo programme which put a man on the moon, in today’s dollars,” according to his plan. He wants to create a new government research agency focused solely on solutions to climate change, called ARPA-C. He pledges 500,000 new electric vehicle-charging stations by the end of 2030 and tax breaks for carbon capture technology.

A significant test for Biden will be how he navigates a divided legislature and raises money for some of these proposals with the economy in dire shape. Securing and distributing a coronavirus vaccine will be the top priority. After that, Biden will have to find a way of threading the needle between trying to win the confidence of climate activists – while not alienating more moderate or right-of-centre voters. Results from congressional races indicate that Biden will face a divided Washington, with his Democrats holding a majority in the House and Republicans holding onto control of the Senate. 

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