03 Nov 2020   |   News

'Dread and cautious optimism’ as researchers await election outcome

Most scientists say they want to put the ‘lost opportunities’ of the Trump years behind them

US elections

November 4 update: Vote counting continues in the too-close-to-call US election, with president Trump already threatening legal action if the result doesn't go his way. Below, a reminder of where both candidates stand on science and technology. 

As the US awaits an outcome to its election, the two candidates’ approaches on science and technology couldn’t be further apart.

Former vice president Joe Biden’s plan leans heavily on overhauling the nation’s energy system in an almost-$2 trillion climate change push; his rival, president Donald Trump, is a climate change sceptic and more interested in big tech milestones, like “winning the race on 5G” telecommunications.

In his 11th-hour pitch to voters, Biden accused Trump of not taking the necessary steps to control the COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed more than 230,000 American lives. Meanwhile, Trump promised to make the pandemic an afterthought. “On November fourth you won't hear about COVID anymore,” he told supporters.

Their differences raise profound questions about America’s role in shaping the future of big, transformational technologies and the global fight against climate change and the pandemic. 

With a pandemic and deep economic uncertainty already weighing upon the country, “My mood is a mixture of dread and cautious optimism,” said Peter Gleick, a hydro-climatologist and member of the US National Academy of Sciences. “The optimism comes from the growing evidence that Americans are fed up with the traitorous, corrupt, incompetent, anti-science actions of the Trump administration and are voting in record numbers.”

“The dread comes from the fact that so many of us believed Trump would lose in 2016, only to have that certainty dashed,” Gleick said.

The California-based scientist and founder of the Pacific Institute says another four years of Trump “will condemn US democracy to the dust heap and condemn the planet to far worse climate change than under a Biden administration.”

Another climate scientist Andrew Dessler, professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University agreed. “The mood is tense. I think the only hope for a smooth transition is for a blowout election. If it's close, it will be a bad scene,” he said.

And the mood in America’s northern neighbour, Canada? “No need to ask,” said Philippe Tanguy, CEO of Polytechnique Montreal. “Irrespective of the political colour of the people I am talking to, Trump’s personality plays 100 per cent against a second mandate. It is really seen as an anti-Trump referendum,” he said.

The ranks of outspoken Trump-supporting scientists are slim by comparison. “I’d be a little disappointed if it went for Biden,” says Richard Lindzen, a retired atmospheric physicist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Trump has been very polarising, no question. But you can point to things he has achieved in foreign policy. We’ve woken up to the fact that China has less than benign intentions, for instance.”

Lindzen diverges from the scientific consensus on climate change, arguing it is not as dangerous as it’s made out to be. He says that is has become more difficult to have open debate on global warming and politics in academic circles. “Universities are very monolithic. I have friends at MIT who are conservative and who support Trump. They don’t mention this in public; it would negate their influence.”

Lindzen says he’s uncomfortable with medical journals like the Lancet Oncology and the New England Journal of Medicine breaking with tradition and endorsing Biden. “I think it’s ill-advised,” he said.

Then there are the few researchers who can’t get behind either candidate. “The Republicans seem to prefer to ignore science, while the Democrats cherry pick science to further their political agendas,” said Judith Curry, former chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

How they compare

With Democratic hopeful Biden, the initial aim in office would be to tuck potentially far-reaching climate measures into a large coronavirus recovery package. The candidate is promising a “historic investment” in energy and climate research and innovation as part of his $1.7 trillion ‘Clean Energy Revolution’, which aims to achieve a 100 per cent clean energy economy and net-zero emissions by 2050.

Biden is 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.

Biden says he will go after the global influence the US once had, and “secure a global commitment to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies” by the end of his first term. Another policy proposal is to do away with unilateral trade tariffs on China, and instead “rally a united front of nations to hold China accountable” to high environmental standards for its big-money Belt and Road programme to build ports, rail lines and telecoms networks around the world.

“The Biden climate plan, and the people he has surrounded himself with, are – for the first time in American political history – committed to seriously addressing climate threats. I hope he and a new administration have a chance to implement it,” said Gleick.

Dessler called Biden's climate plan “a good first start.” However, winning the presidential election won’t guarantee his plan is enacted. “The key thing will be whether he's willing to fight to implement it. If he thinks he can get things done by compromise and normal politics, he'll get nothing accomplished.”

For Biden to turn at least some of those proposals into law, the Democrats will need to gain control of Congress, meaning both the Senate and the lower House of Representatives. “He needs to be willing to fight to the death and I'm worried that a politician whose sense is to tack to the middle won't have the stomach to get things done,” Dessler said.

To tackle the pandemic that has killed more than 220,000 people in the US, Biden pitches for a national contact tracing programme, at least 10 testing centres in every state, and free coronavirus testing for all. He also wants to restore the White House National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, which the Trump administration eliminated in 2018.

The Democrat’s plan doesn’t outline specific investments in technology sectors like artificial intelligence or machine learning.

“[The plan is more] focused on workers – which is great,” said Steve Andriole, professor of business technology at the Villanova University in Pennsylvania. “If he pursues net neutrality, rural broadband, data protection for individuals, and antitrust [legislation], I would be happy. There's no question that a Biden presidency will be better for technology [that] enables and supports US citizens than Trump's, which [has] had a clear tilt toward industry.”

Trump’s plan, meanwhile, shares none of Biden’s climate goals, though his campaign promises to “partner with other nations to clean up our planet’s oceans.” The president wants to expand non-renewable energy, with more drilling for oil and gas, and a further weakening of climate protections (researchers at Columbia University in New York count over 160 significant environmental rollbacks in his first term).

The Republican incumbent’s plan places greater emphasis on prestige tech milestones, such as establishing a “permanent manned presence” on the moon and sending the first manned mission to Mars. Trump also vows to “win the race to 5G” and deliver a COVID-19 vaccine before the end of the year.

Where both candidates share some common ground is on penalising offshored manufacturing jobs. Under Biden, US companies located abroad would pay a 10 per cent tax penalty on any sales back to the US. Trump meanwhile pledges tax breaks for pharmaceutical and robotics companies that bring manufacturing back to the country.

‘No thanks to Trump’

While Trump has shown a near-total disregard for climate change, his time in office has seen emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum technologies receive increased governmental attention. The president launched the American AI Initiative in 2019, outlining a national strategy for AI leadership and signed the National Quantum Initiative Act into law in 2018, increasing funding for quantum computing and communications.

“Science funding has done well in the past four years but it’s no thanks to the Trump administration – they’ve proposed substantial cuts every year and it’s Congress that has restored the money,” said Kei Koizumi, former assistant director at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) under president Barack Obama.

Koizumi, who is now a science consultant based in Shanghai, instead credits Trump with helping to bring about “a needed re-examination of the fundamental openness of the US science system.” The administration announced a ‘China initiative’ in 2018, after several reported cases of scientists illicitly providing China with findings of technology and research projects paid for by US federal agencies.

Koizumi says the focus on “improper foreign access” to US research results is welcome, but he also hopes the US relationship with the Chinese government can go in a “more measured and thoughtful direction. Chinese students and researchers still want to go to the US but they recognise it’s a more hostile place for them now,” Koizumi said. 

The Trump presidency has arguably been a bigger gift to foreign research bases than its own. The Station F start-up incubator in Paris has seen many fledgling company founders come through its doors that “have told us flat out they came because of Trump,” said Roxanne Varza, director of the campus.

Foreign leaders have at times exploited Trump’s bad relationship with researchers.

The president’s decision to restrict visas for highly skilled technical people – the three-year H1-B –has hurt US dominance in artificial intelligence, said Zachary Arnold, a research fellow at Georgetown's Centre for Security and Emerging Technology. The Canadian government has seen an opportunity here, and paid for billboards in Silicon Valley that pointedly read “H-1B Problems? Pivot to Canada.”

And hours after Trump announced he was taking the US out of the Paris international climate agreement, in June 2017, French president Emmanuel Macron unveiled a campaign around the cheeky slogan ‘Make our planet great again,’ complete with a website where US climate researchers could apply for residency and work in France.

‘Lost opportunities’

One of the initial group of 18 researchers chosen for funding from Macron's climate programme is Venkatramani Balaji, a researcher at Princeton University, who took up a dual position at Institut Pierre-Simon Laplace in Paris.

“This has been a period of lost opportunities [in the US],” said Balaji, who specialises in atmospheric and oceanic sciences. “It is not so much that we have faced funding cuts in the US – to be clear, climate research funding hasn't been significantly reduced – but relative to European and Chinese investments in climate research and climate services, the US has fallen far behind even with flat funding.”

US citizens are not hearing enough from their leaders about the threat of dangerous climate change, he said. He points to France’s Citizen's Convention on Climate, a “very interesting amalgam of experts and non-experts arriving at a possible path forward toward decarbonisation through spirited public debate. That is quite unimaginable in the US,” Balaji said.

Biden’s Green New Deal would give the US a mission. “In theory it could be a source for jobs, a national service for youth, and a sense of purpose that this wounded country sorely needs,” he added.

Science’s boom and bust

Camille Parmesan, a biologist who is also a winner of the Macron climate grant, said she grew “fed up and sick of” what she saw as the lack of regard for climate science in the US.

“I had to constantly justify my work with the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change),” said Parmesan, whose lab is jointly funded by the National Centre for Scientific Research and the Paul Sabatier University, and located in the foothills of the central Pyrenees in Moulis, some 100 kilometres south of Toulouse.

Parmesan has seen the boom and bust cycle of ambitious science policy up close in Washington.

“I was brought to the OSTP (Office of Science and Technology Policy) during the Clinton era – it was so vibrant and engaged then. They were so interested in our work. Then George Bush Junior came in, and my next visit to the Hill – well, it wasn’t for an official White House event. I remember the OSTP was empty and the lights were out.”

Under president Obama, “the office was alive and vibrant again. Obama talked with [senior science adviser] John Holdren every day. Trump gets in and he washes away many of the things Obama did,” she said.

Frustrated by life in the US, Parmesan emigrated to the UK. This was a big improvement, she said, until the Brexit vote in 2016. After that, she successfully applied for the French climate grant.

“I’m not only given an enormous grant but a permanent position. And everyone is thrilled that I’m working with the IPCC,” she said. Researchers have received grants of up to €1.5 million to set up labs for three to five years all across France.

Her view is that Biden could revive the OTSP and science more generally in Washington. It took Trump 19 months to appoint meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier as his government’s top scientist. Biden wouldn’t wait that long, she said. 

“We’ve had anti-science presidents before, but Trump is exponentially worse than anyone else,” Parmesan said.

She would be tempted to return to Washington, provided Biden wins, to see the new Green Deal take shape. “It would be a very difficult decision – everyone here has been so welcoming, from Macron down. And I have my lovely old farmhouse with a view of the mountains.”

Trump vs Biden: where they stand on science and tech issues

Biden wants to:

  • Transition the US into a 100% clean energy economy with a carbon-free power sector by 2035 and net-zero emissions by 2050;
  • Re-join the Paris international climate accord and the World Health Organisation;
  • Establish a new research agency focused solely on climate change (a new ‘ARPA’);
  • Invest $400 billion in climate research and innovation over 10 years;
  • Install 500,000 new electric vehicle charging stations by 2030;
  • Issue tax breaks for carbon capture technology projects;
  • Up the pressure on China over its environmental record.

Trump wants to:

  • Beat China and Europe in the race to 5G networks;
  • Deliver a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of the year;
  • Send the first manned mission to Mars;
  • Establish a permanent colony on the Moon;
  • Give tax breaks to pharma and robotics companies, provided they bring jobs back to the US.


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