President Donald Trump and science: What’s the profit?

Trump is likely to back science research based on business payback

Donald Trump: As president, what would he make of research into embryonic stem cells that causes the death of embryos? Photograph: Reuters/Carlo Allegri

Donald Trump: As president, what would he make of research into embryonic stem cells that causes the death of embryos? Photograph: Reuters/Carlo Allegri

 

Donald Trump has won the US election, so what happens to the conduct of science within the US? Is he likely to increase national research spending? Or will he rein it back because basic research is not a money-making proposition and carries too much risk?

What will Trump make of fundamental research into embryonic stem cells and other experimentation that causes the death of embryos for the cells they might yield up? He courted the religious right all through the election campaign, although he was less in their thrall than other recent Republican presidential hopefuls.

This might be because Trump was capable of funding his own campaign and so didn’t need backers from this quarter. Or, more likely, he never really broached policy matters when he was on the stump – with the exception of foreign nationals and the need to throw them out.

The tenor of a new administration emerges fairly quickly after an election, with the new political force quickly voicing policy matters and setting down markers.

Trump is primarily a businessman, and one must assume that he will apply his own brand of rigorous capitalism to any prospective deal, whether it is trade with neighbouring countries or deciding whether to clip a billion dollars from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (Nasa) budget.

Of course, some science may be exempt, such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the US Naval Research Laboratory. He made it clear during the campaign than he wants to renew investment in the US military.

Questioning research

In the US, it often comes down to how effective an organisation is at delivering tenable results that can be seen by the voters who yield up the tax dollars to fund large organisation such as Nasa.

President Obama proposed a $19 billion spend for Nasa during 2017 – a lot of cash, but in fact a cut of $300 million from 2016. People reportedly concerned about “big government” welcomed the reduction as fiscal rectitude.

Equally, however, those who want to see the advance of astronomical research will claim any cuts work against the stated goal to land astronauts on Mars and will undercut hugely successful satellite missions, such as New Horizon, which sailed past Pluto last year, or the Dawn probe, which visited giant asteroids Vesta and Ceres.

Nasa, however, is adept at fighting rearguard actions against threats of cuts by marshalling public sentiment and the natural interest many people have with the great space adventure.

This was at its peak during the Apollo trips to the moon. These successes were lauded as milestone accomplishments, built national pride and garnered the support of the public. At the same time they developed useful technologies that could be reapplied in a military context.

There is far less interest in spending outlandish amounts of money to land astronauts onto the surface of Mars, although this remains a functional element of Nasa’s programme.

If the public is indifferent to a Mars mission, then so too will the elected members of Congress.

But if the public became enthusiastic about the pursuit of knowledge that would arise with a great adventure to Mars, then so too will legislators, possibly fearful of a backlash at the next election.

Science and Ireland

We cannot afford to launch a manned space mission, but we could potentially launch a satellite mission to the moon or a research satellite to study Earth. Imagine the sense of pride arising from such a venture. Even more, imagine the benefits that would arise for the economy and the State.

Launching an Irish satellite would require engineers and scientists and would provide crucial experience to these individuals and to the State. Scientific competence is a valuable attribute when multinationals choose where to invest, and it would expand the nature of our relationship with the European Space Agency.

The public may not get excited about most science, but they certainly would if they watched the countdown on a rocket painted in green, white and orange and carrying the first Irish satellite. This might be an investment worth making.

People will have the opportunity to become inspired by science when Science Week gets under way on November 13th-20th. There are hundreds of talks, shows and exhibitions all around the island of Ireland. Science Foundation Ireland can provide information about what is on. or visit science.ie.

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