Simon Marginson assesses what the next US presidency will mean for science and research
The election of Joe Biden means that after 20 January 2021, the United States president will no longer be at war with science. Research-based judgements will again be central to American government, although, as in the UK and in Europe, they won’t always prevail over short-term politics.
Crucially, scientists will be continually involved in American handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change issues. The incoming administration will reopen immigration channels and strike down discriminatory access policies, facilitating both international scientific cooperation and the flow of worldwide research talent back into the US.
It is less clear what priority the administration will give to science institutions and research funding. This will be a struggle-town presidency, battling to be conciliatory while its moves are blocked at every twist and turn by what is very likely to be a Republican-controlled Senate.
President versus Senate has happened before, but this time the Senate will be more than usually empowered, doubly backed by a vociferous Trumpist mass movement and a conservative Supreme Court. The anti-science policies of the Trump era might have gone but the anti-science politics will continue, cheered on by a large chunk of the 72 million Trump voters, many of whom are committed to a raft of creationist, heliocentric and QAnon beliefs.
The Republicans will also maintain their rage with universities, which they now see in ideological terms—not as sources of ideas, discoveries or solutions to the world’s problems, but as captured liberal bastions that should be brought to heel.
Continued partisanship is certain. The unknown is the detail of the incoming government’s priorities in research and science. Perhaps Biden himself does not know. Of his Democratic Party predecessors, Bill Clinton was not only across the science policy debates but had a personal position on each issue, and Barack Obama was genuinely interested. Up to now, Biden has focused on foreign affairs and the judiciary, not science and higher education.
In a pre-election piece on 1 October, Nature quoted science policy expert Michael Lubell from City University of New York, who remarked that despite the president-elect’s five decades in public service, when it comes to research policy, “Biden fundamentally is a blank page. He’s certainly not anti-science; it’s just not a priority.”
In the absence of more information, most observers have tipped a return to the policies of the Obama years, when Biden was vice-president. In the case of cross-border mobility, Biden and his vice-president Kamala Harris have confirmed this. Their pre-election website called for an increase in visas for permanent employment-based immigration, and a removal of visa caps for international graduates from US PhD programmes in science, technology, engineering and maths.
On his first day in office, Biden is expected to repeal the Trump travel ban that restricts arrivals from a number of Muslim-majority countries. In the transition period, Trump is trying to establish a discriminatory visa policy requiring students to reapply for visas every two or four years depending on their country of origin, and he has also moved to narrow the criteria for H-1B visas and increase the level of salary required, pushing H-1B visas out of reach of most doctoral graduates.
Many international students use the H-1B route as their pathway for staying on to work in the US after graduation. Biden would undo both of these changes, although it might take time. Trump has also banned new international students from entering wholly online programmes, retarding international student mobility and forcing higher education institutions to open up classrooms and student residences during the pandemic, whether or not it is safe to do so. Biden can be expected to reverse this.
However, Biden, like nearly all US politicians, is committed to the geostrategy of containing China while maintaining American global technological leadership. After more than 30 years of open US-China cooperation in science, under Trump the US moved decisively to prioritise national security, toughening its stance on intellectual property sharing, running discriminatory investigations against researchers with Chinese names, regardless of their citizenship, and placing pressure on scholars from both nations with dual appointments.
Biden will pursue this agenda in a more civilised manner, but despite the commitment of leading US universities and many researchers to continued cooperation, there may be a fall in the number of Chinese students and postdoctoral and later-career scientists in the US.
In their handling of the pandemic, Biden and Harris will take a very different position from Trump. They have already announced the creation of a Covid-19 Advisory Board of public health experts. They will routinely use science to legitimise policies that trigger pushback from states or individualist revolts against social protocols.
It is likely that there will be an even greater difference from the Trump years in policy on climate change. As well as withdrawing the US from the 2015 Paris accords, Trump went a long way towards dismantling environmental controls inside the US. He suborned the Environmental Protection Agency, which lost many of its leading scientists.
Biden will run hard on these issues. As well as returning to Paris, his pre-election commitments include an investment of $2 trillion (£1.5tn) towards targets of 100 per cent clean energy by 2035 (only 15 years away) and net zero emissions by 2050. He also wants to invest heavily in clean energy R&D, seen as an area of competition with China. This will be a major battleground with a Republican-majority Senate, keeping alive the debates about the validity and legitimacy of science-based claims.
The Democrats have headline policies designed to strengthen participation in post-school education, including free two-year community colleges, free tuition for many families at four-year public universities, and the forgiving of some student loan debt. These policies helped bring the youth vote out for Biden. They have been costed at over $2tn and will be opposed in the Senate.
The future of research funding will be determined by whether there is a stimulus package in the early economic recovery, whether research funding is in the package—and whether the package and the research funding component pass the Senate.
Simon Marginson is professor of higher education at the University of Oxford and director of the Centre for Global Higher Education.