Science in an Era of Trump
Michael Lubell, City College of New York
If you believe that science is under attack by the Trump Administration, you’re probably correct. But if you believe that science and technology had nothing to do with President Trump’s election, you’re probably wrong. I’ll deal with that shortly, but first, let’s look at the status of science in the Administration.
Donald Trump has yet to appoint a science advisor, and the odds are growing that he never will. The Office of Science and Technology Policy, which was a beehive of activity during the last seven presidencies, is virtually abandoned property in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
Even though the White House renewed the charter of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology at the end of September, it has yet to fill any of its seats.
The Center for Disease Control sent out an advisory to its staff not to use the phrases “science based” and “evidenced based.”1 The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has removed academic scientists from its advisory committee and replaced them with industry shills.2
The White House has eliminated offshore drilling-rig regulations put in place to minimize the risk of another Deepwater Horizon blow out. Remember that is the one that devastated the Gulf Coast in 2010 and cost BP, which owned the well, an estimated $62 billion.3
The EPA has lifted controls on coal ash dumping into rivers and streams and has rolled back emission limits on coal-fired power plants.4
President Trump calls climate change a hoax and has said he will withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord in 2020.5 He also threatened he will no longer certify Iran’s compliance with the 2015 multi-nation nuclear deal, even though the International Atomic Energy Agency has reported there is no evidence — oops there’s that forbidden word — Iran has violated its commitment.6
Ernie Moniz, a superb nuclear physicist, who was then Secretary of Energy, was instrumental in developing the terms and safeguards in the Iran agreement. If any international negotiation was science based — oops, another no-no — it was that nuclear deal.
There’s plenty more to be said, especially about the quality of many of the people the White House has appointed to the science and technology positions it has actually found time to fill, but space limitations prevent me from doing so. Also, I don’t want to besmirch reputations of people whose only failings are their lack of science and technology credentials.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the potential science and education impacts of the tax bill the president signed into law in December. By saddling the nation with an immense deficit – close to $1.5 trillion over ten years according to the Joint Committee on Taxation7 — the bill will constrain discretionary spending from which research and science education draw their support. And by capping deductions on state and local taxes (SALT) at $10,000, the bill may ultimately force many states to ratchet back their support for education, especially higher education.8
Now let’s move on to the role science and technology played in electing Donald Trump. There’s no evidence — I just can’t avoid using the word — that scientists voted for him in great numbers. In fact, I haven’t found a single one who admits to doing so. But there’s ample evidence that science and technology helped lay the groundwork for Trump’s victory.
I didn’t see the connection when I first forecast that Hillary Clinton would have a really tough time beating Donald Trump. I wrote about it in the late spring of 2016, even as polls were showing she had a big leg up.
At the time, Trump had enough delegates to secure the Republican nomination, and with her lock on “super-delegates,” Hillary was the certain Democratic standard bearer. For each party, the candidate die was cast, but for me, so, too, was the electoral outcome.
Even though my home state of Connecticut was solidly in the Clinton column, away from the cities and Fairfield County’s “Gold Coast,” Trump’s “Make America Great Again” lawn signs were evident everywhere. I spoke to some Trump voters in Connecticut and other states and asked them why they were supporting him.
Most said they were struggling economically. Most said they felt abandoned. Most said they had lost faith in government. And most said they were willing to roll the dice and “shake up the system.” They didn’t necessarily agree with policies Trump was trumpeting — many of them had no idea what they were — but they found his belligerency, bellicosity, bullying and lack of political correctness refreshing.
I concluded Trump was tapping into populist anger, and Clinton, to her enduring peril, was floating above it. Although he was a billionaire, at least by his own account, his supporters saw him as one of them. Clinton, by contrast, they saw as an elitist, finagler, befitting Trump’s “Crooked Hillary” label he pinned on her.
The difference in voters’ perceptions of the two candidates ultimately led to Trump’s victories in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin and with them, his Electoral College majority. I had foreseen the populist uprising, which was actually manifest in the 2010 Tea Party movement, but I hadn’t yet understood its origin.
After the election, as I tried to sort it all out, I began looking at data: productivity, wages, jobs and the economy. The numbers told a compelling story. The conventional wisdom was that globalization and trade deals had undercut jobs. There is some truth to that, but the story is more complex.
For a quarter of a century following the end of the Second World War, wages fairly well tracked productivity.9 To be precise, between 1948 and 1973, productivity increased 96.7 percent, and hourly compensation of non-supervisory workers corrected for inflation, rose 91.3 percent, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But between 1973 and 2014, while productivity continued to climb, rising another 72.2 percent, hourly compensation rose by a mere 9.2 percent.
Over that latter period, as the growth curves diverged, there were hardly any blips. The trend lines were remarkably featureless, and the divergence simply grew.
It’s hard to see how trade pacts had anything to do with the phenomenon until the mid 1990s. The first multilateral treaty, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), signed by the United States, Mexico and Canada, didn’t kick in until 1994.10 It might have depressed manufacturing wages as a number of production plants moved to Mexico in the aftermath, but it couldn’t have accounted for the productivity-wage divergence prior to that.
Globalization undoubtedly played a major role. Cheaper labor in countries like China led manufacturers to relocate plants overseas. But without technology, the monetary savings would have been substantially less. Containerization – an engineering achievement – reduced overseas shipping costs, and information technology coupled with rapid growth of satellite communication provided a critical seamlessness that would have been unimaginable without them.
At home, the increasing use of automation also depressed wages, as machines began to displace workers. Machines were cheaper, didn’t require maternity or paternity leave and didn’t burden HR offices with personal problems. The displacement of workers has accelerated in the last decade, as the price of robots has dropped dramatically and artificial intelligence has begun to make its mark.
Price Waterhouse Coopers last March projected that automation would result in the loss of almost two out of every five American jobs by the middle of the next decade.11 New jobs might appear in large numbers, but they will require different skills, especially STEM skills, and will likely be located in different geographic areas than the places where jobs vanished.
Manufacturing and coal mining have led the way in permanent job dislocation. And the states and localities where they once dominated were the hotbeds of the populist revolt. People there not only lost their jobs, they also lost hope their condition would ever improve. They voted for Trump in large numbers, buying into his false promise that he would bring back manufacturing jobs from overseas and reopen shuttered coal mines in Appalachia.
He sold them on the restoration of manufacturing jobs by promising to abandon NAFTA and nixing the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He sold them on bringing coal mining jobs back by demonizing climate change and blaming environmental regulations on the closure of coal-burning power plants.
But the reality is that even if some manufacturing returns from overseas, robots will replace many of the workers in the new factories and assembly lines. As for coal,12 cheap natural gas has been the culprit. And it’s “fracking” and, more importantly the horizontal drilling technologies,13 that have made natural gas so cheap and consequently the preferred energy source for electricity producers.
Donald Trump has a long history in real estate and other business enterprises of promising miracles but delivering bankruptcy as the outcome six times.14 The promises he made to his base are likely to result in similar failures. The question is, how will those people react?
The despair they feel is evidenced in the opioid crisis.15 And the anger and disillusionment they have continued to experience explain their unwavering support for Donald Trump. Once they see that technology is the cause of their plight, will they turn on scientists and academics, whom they already see as the privileged elite, or will they look for another false prophet, perhaps one with even greater autocratic tendencies?
Scientists can help tip the balance by leaning on policymakers and elected officials to plan for a future in which large number of American workers will be permanently displaced from the jobs they currently hold or have already lost. After all, scientists understand the impacts of technology better than most people.
Helping to guide policy on an issue of such profound importance is not only a moral imperative, it is one of self-preservation. If the public turns on science — and there is evidence from recent polling that support for science is an inch deep — scientists might find themselves in the same jobless predicament. It’s time to shed the cloak of superiority and elitism and work for a more equitable future.
Michael Lubell is the Mark W. Zemansky Professor of Physics at The City College of the City University of New York and the former director of public affairs of the American Physical Society. His new book, “Navigating the Maze: How Science and Technology Policy Shape America and the World,” is scheduled for publication later this spring.
- Lena Sun and Juliet Eilperin, “CDC gets list of forbidden words: Fetus, transgender, diversity,” Washington Post, December 15, 2017.
- Brady Dennis, Juliet Eilperin, and Chris Mooney, “In unprecedented move, EPA to block scientists who get agency funding from serving as advisers,” Washington Post, October 30, 2017.
- Nathan Bomey, “BP’s Deepwater Horizon costs total $62B,” USA Today, July 14, 2016.
- Brady Dennis, “Trump administration halts Obama-era rule aimed at curbing toxic wastewater from coal plants,” Washington Post, April 13, 2017.
- Trevor Hughes, “White House says no change in position on Paris climate agreement,” USA Today, September 16, 2017
- Jeremy Diamond, “Trump issues warning, but continues to honor Iran deal,” CNN, January 12, 2018.
- Jacob Pramuk, “Final GOP tax bill would increase deficits by just under $1.5 trillion, early congressional estimates say,” CNBC, December 15, 2017.
- Jesse McKinley and Nick Corasaniti, “If the GOP tax plan hurts you, congressmen say it’s your state’s fault,” New York Times, December 7, 2017.
- Economic Policy Institute, “The productivity-pay gap,” October, 2017.
- Office of the United States Trade Representative, “North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) .”
- Richard Berriman, “Will robots steal our jobs? The potential impact of automation on the UK and other major economies,” UK Economic Outlook, March, 2017.
- Trevor Houser, Jason Bordoff, and Peter Marsters, “Can coal make a comeback?,” Center on Global Energy Policy, Columbia University, April, 2017.
- Jeff Brady, “Focus on fracking diverts attention from horiontal drilling,” NPR, January, 27 2013.
- Michelle Lee, “Fact Check: Has Trump declared bankruptcy four or six times,” Washington Post, September 26, 2016.
- Julie Bosman, “Inside a killer drug epidemic: A look at America’s opioid crisis,” New York Times, January 6, 2017.