Trump and Science

With federal funding uncertain, Harvard should turn to private donors.

The environmental and scientific policies of our president-elect have brought uncertainty to the future of federal research funding. For an eminent university such as Harvard—whose intellectual output hinges on the success of its research—decreased federal funding poses a dire threat. Harvard science professors have expressed their fears about the imminent Trump presidency, characterizing his opinions on climate change as “anti-science” and “disturbing”.

The views of these Harvard faculty are corroborated at a national level. Donald Trump’s specific action plan regarding climate change, including cancelling the Paris climate deal because it is “bad for U.S. business,” has triggered alarm among scientists nationwide. Not only are Trump’s potential policies viewed as a “possible death rattle for global climate policy,” they are ironically also considered as impediments to Trump’s other goals. As a whole, Trump’s future goals as well as previous track record have “terrified” scientists nationwide and resulted in sympathy and condolences from scientists around the world.

The worry about a decline in federal funding is not unprecedented at Harvard. Since the beginning of federal budget cuts known as sequestration in 2013, there has already been a significant decrease in federal research funding—a decrease deemed concerning by both the University President and Provost. In response to this contingency, as well a to similar cutbacks in earlier years, Harvard has turned to alternative non-federal funding through corporations, foundations, and donors. These independent initiatives have led to ventures such as the Harvard Stem Cell Center Institute.

While researchers in the sciences have been the most vocal about the potential consequences of Trump and further cuts to federal funding, the humanities also stand to lose much in the age of Trump. The current trend towards devaluing and underfunding a humanities education—and the critical thinking it teaches—has played a role in creating a political environment conducive to Trump, and it seems unlikely that a Trump presidency will help this state of affairs.

Fortunately, Harvard is at an advantage compared to other institutions because of the University’s ability to leverage private funding. Now, it is more important than ever to continue to pursue these avenues of research funding, especially once the political landscape changes with Trump’s inauguration. By doubling down on non-federal support, Harvard and other comparable research institutions can combat potential slashes in federal funding that may be a part of Trump’s agenda.

Nevertheless, it is important to seek private donors that will fund research to the same level of impartiality that federal dollars would. In ensuring that donations are equally accessible to all types of research Harvard pursues, the university can continue to fund strong and impartial research, even in the face of both sequestration and a Trump presidency.

Harvard professors and the wider scientific community certainly have reason to worry about the impending leadership of the “first anti-science president,"

as the director of the American Physical Society has dubbed Trump. Harvard, however, with its broad donor base, can likely offset the negative repercussions of Trump’s policies by culling non-federal funds. As long as private research donors continue to support research impartially, Harvard should pursue all possible sources of funds to ensure that an anti-science presidency does not do irreparable harm to American research.