Delaware Public Media

A funding crisis? UD researchers consider a Trump presidency's impact

Dec 9, 2016

Since Donald Trump won the presidency in November, a number of groups have expressed anxiety over what his presidency may mean for them.  That list includes some scientists and researchers.

Delaware Public Media science reporter Katie Peikes tells us some University of Delaware researchers are worried Trump's dismissive campaign rhetoric regarding science could signal cuts to research funding once he takes office.

President Elect Donald Trump has called climate change “a hoax,” and on the campaign trail, he barely mentioned science and research as a priority. It’s making some University of Delaware researchers, like Stuart Binder-MacLeod, concerned about the future for science.

“I think what concerns me and most scientists is the thought of an administration that is dismissive of science, that has a previous agenda and will use that agenda to make conclusions in the face of facts,” Binder-MacLeod said. “Even if the evidence is against them, they still make the claim, and we’ve seen that over and over again.”

The President and Congress are in charge of setting funding levels for multiple science research organizations. Spending for nondefense research and development, which includes health, space and environment has been flat since 2002, and federal funding for work from the National Institutes of Health has remained essentially flat since 2009.

If Trump’s administration takes an anti-science stance and cuts back on federal funding, many scientists are concerned one key resource for continuing research or starting new projects will disappear.

“If money were to decrease at the federal level, what we at the University of Delaware have always done and will continue to do are look for a variety of funding sources,” said Charlie Riordan, UD’s deputy provost for research.

Researchers would not be able to turn to the state to supplement lost federal funding because the state budget is tight, Riordan said. That would leave them turning to the private sector and foundations for funding.

“And there are many industrial sectors where they’re turning to universities to do some of the basic research that they need to drive their industries forward and develop the next innovations and technologies to come out of their industries to come out of their industries,” Riordan said.

So researchers would not be entirely out of options; but they may be a lot more insecure about their funding sources, especially for long-term projects. Riordan said it’s the uncertainty of how the Trump administration will act that’s fueling researchers’ insecurities.

“Obviously some of that will clear up once the new administration is in place and cabinet level officials are named and confirmed by the Senate, so that will help provide some clarity,” Riordan said. “It always takes time as a new administrations turn over, as I suggested.”

There’s so many problems researchers are trying to solve now and a cut in funding could cripple those efforts, Riordan said.

“Whether it’s renewable energy, water purity, security scarcity, many of the diseases that afflict the human race — cancer, Alzheimer’s — we’ve never been in a stronger position as a society to address those problems,” he said.

Aside from funding cuts, scientists are concerned about what a Trump presidency could mean in regard to educating the public on scientific matters. Binder-MacLeod said he is worried about Trump spreading misinformation when it comes to science - like when he called global warming a hoax or said vaccinations lead to autism.

“I’m concerned about in terms of the pipeline for future scientists,” Binder-MacLeod said. “I’m concerned about public opinion with respect to vaccinations or other healthcare practices. I’m concerned about how the public is going to influence our legislature in terms of healthcare funding and then finally in terms of how regulated - are those regulations going to be driven by objective science or is it going to be just opinion that really is not based on science? And that’s what everyone is worried about.”

But researchers aren’t completely pessimistic. Binder-MacLeod suggests that once Trump becomes president, perhaps he’ll move away from his campaign trail rhetoric.

“So we’re not sure which Donald Trump we’re really gonna see,” he said. “Will he reign in some of the outrageous claims he’s made in the past, or will he in fact take advice from his advisers and cite facts and figures that are consistent upon what we know based upon good sound science.”

Riordan agreed, saying he hopes to see Trump moderate his views once he takes office.

“I hope that the new administration will take seriously and appreciate that the economic prosperity that our country has seen over the last six or seven decades is fundamentally linked to federal investments in research,” Riordan said.

But for now, researchers can only wait for January, when President Trump starts making decisions about where funding is going.

Delaware Public Media contacted Trump’s media team, but received no response by the time of publication.