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Looking ahead to 2017

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As the political upheaval of a generation continues, Nick Vail looks at how Trump and Brexit could affect science in the next year.

 

Trump

Under Trump, scientists studying climate change the world over are afraid. In 2012 he called global warming a concept created by the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.  Since winning the election he’s done little to assuage those fears, appointing climate change sceptics as Energy Secretary and head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Trump has also announced that he will scrap NASA’s earth science division – calling it “politicised science”. 2017 may see climate science pushed off the agenda of the nation with the highest pollution per capita.

2017 may see climate science pushed off the agenda of the nation with the highest pollution per capita.

However, there may still be glimmers of hope in other areas. In scrapping NASA’s earth science division Trump announced increased funding for deep space exploration. Space travel is always popular and Trump’s administration could put space exploration back at the heart of American science policy.

Yet, as is the norm with politics these days, the only certainty is uncertainty. Trump is an unknown quantity on most scientific issues and the reality is nobody knows what he’s going to do. His record is not hugely favourable, he’s been known to link vaccines to autism, and scientists can merely wait and see if there is a difference between his bombastic rhetoric and actual policy making decisions.

Brexit

Six months later and there is still no clear plan for post-Brexit science. Theresa May’s announcement of a further £2 billion for science at least up until 2020 provides some financial reassurance, however funding is only one part of a healthy scientific sector. The free exchange of people and ideas across the EU has been fundamental to the strength of science in the UK. ‘Hard Brexit’ would seriously damage the UK’s position as the centre of science in Europe and the government has given very little in the way of support for science ahead of the proposed article 50 activation date of March.

 ‘Hard Brexit’ would seriously damage the UK’s position as the centre of science in Europe.

Though UK science will remain strong regardless of the way Brexit falls, the seemingly endless uncertainty helps no one. Influential organisations remain in the dark and government policy seems to be barely beyond the phrase Brexit means Brexit. This all points to a continuing lack of planning for the eventual exit. While it is true that scientists probably shouldn’t beg for special treatment on issues such as immigration, it is vital that UK research institutions have assurance that they are still able to attract the best people.

The real impact on science will be found in the detail of negotiations with the EU, as Brexit takes shape through 2017 the fate of UK science should become more tangible.

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