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Science and technology under a Trump presidency

BY and   November 11, 2016 at 3:06 PM EST
Apprehension has brewed among science- and health-minded communities since Trump's presidential victory. But, do his policies boost or end these fields? Photo by Alex_Traksel/via Adobe

Apprehension has brewed among science- and health-minded communities since Trump’s presidential victory. But, do his policies boost or end these fields? Photo by Alex_Traksel/via Adobe

Donald Trump was elected 45th president of the United States on Tuesday, in a political season marked by stark divides. The popular vote reveals a narrow division, with Hillary Clinton leading the tally by 330,000 ballots, though the margin may eventually expand to 2 million.

But a much larger portion of the populace will be affected by the Trump administration’s stances on science, health, climate change and technology. Since Tuesday’s election, this fact has brewed distrust bordering on fear among science- and health-minded communities. The editors of Nature, one of the world’s biggest publishers covering these fields, wrote, “He [Donald Trump] should leave behind his damaging and unpopular attitudes and embrace reality, rationality and evidence.”

Strong words. Are they fair? NewsHour spoke with experts about what a Trump presidency might mean for science, climate change, technology and health policy. Some arenas are dark — like throw-away-the-light-switch dark — but others may be less dire than his opponents might think.

Trump and the climate policy train

Donald Trump has said he would “cancel” the Paris climate agreement, the United Nations deal to curb greenhouse gases and fund adaptations to climate change, which some scientists view as a possible death rattle for global climate policy. Michael Mann, an atmospheric scientist at Pennsylvania State University, summarized as much for Scientific American:

Not only would this agenda be disastrous for climate, it would actually undermine Trump’s ability to achieve his own primary goals. First, climate change is not like other issues that can be postponed from one year to the next. The U.S. and world are already behind; speed is of the essence, because climate change and its impacts are coming sooner and with greater ferocity than anticipated. This year, 2016, will be the hottest on record by a large margin, and 2015 and 2014 had set the previous records. Extreme weather events such as heat waves and heavy downpours are becoming more frequent and severe, as are related fires, droughts and floods.

A firefighter battles the Trinity Ridge Fire in the Boise National Forest in Idaho in 2012. A recent study found anthropogenic climate change had expanded forest fires across the western U.S. over the last 30 years. Photo by Kari Greer/REUTERS/US Forest Service/Handout

A firefighter battles the Trinity Ridge Fire in the Boise National Forest in Idaho in 2012. A recent study found anthropogenic climate change had expanded forest fires across the western U.S. over the last 30 years. Photo by Kari Greer/REUTERS/US Forest Service/Handout

But elements of Trump’s climate policy, as laid out, are beyond his control.

For one, the Senate hasn’t ratified America’s involvement, which seems unlikely to happen now given the congressional election results. No congressional support, and the Obama administration’s executive commitments to the Paris deal — an $800 million pledge of annual contributions to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — doesn’t happen. To pad the dissent, Trump could also issue an executive declaration to recant from the deal. Collectively, these moves would violate international law, though doing so doesn’t carry any legal penalties.

But the Paris agreement was always meant represent more than a legal contract for the 197 participating nations, said Rutgers University climate scientist Robert Kopp.

“It’s a framework for countries to report on their climate change goals,” he said, and the motivation behind those greenhouse gas limits for nations like China don’t necessarily hinge on the U.S. “China, which is responsible for a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, has a strong incentive to continue based on public health co-benefits.”

Estimates suggest China’s pollution leads to 1.2 million premature deaths per year, causing damages equivalent to 10-13 percent of their GDP. This cost outmatches the ultimate price of cutting greenhouse gases in the nation.

Still, every minute counts in the global battle to curb greenhouse gas emissions, Kopp said: Basically every ton of CO2 to enter the atmosphere warms the planet and that warming lasts for many centuries. He continued if recent trends continue with Antarctic ice melting, then the globe lockf into six feet of sea-level rise or worse. These rising waters would elevate coastal flooding during hurricanes, and might eventually cover land that currently harbors 20 million Americans.

A building and street signs are reflected in flood waters as the Tar River rises to dangerous levels in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, in Tarboro, North Carolina on October 13, 2016. Photo by Jonathan Drake/REUTERS

A building and street signs are reflected in flood waters as the Tar River rises to dangerous levels in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, in Tarboro, North Carolina on October 13, 2016. Photo by Jonathan Drake/REUTERS

The conundrum arises if the U.S. makes zero attempt long-term to its Paris commitment of reducing emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, though America was already off-pace to meet this target. But these countries could also establish bilateral agreements without the U.S. to reinforce climate efforts. Indeed, early signs from this week’s United Nations climate talks in Marrakech, Morocco suggest other nations remain united in their commitment to battling climate change.

Closer to home, President Obama’s Clean Power Plan appears in jeopardy, especially now that Trump has appointed climate skeptic Myron Ebell as leader of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency transition team. In his first 100 days, Trump wants to “lift roadblocks” to “vital energy infrastructure projects”, such as the Keystone pipeline, and its developer has said he wants to “engage” with the incoming administration.

America has seen such moves in the past. When Ronald Reagan appointed Anne Gorsuch Burford as EPA head, she famously cut the agency’s “enforcement budget by more than 45 percent and promoted voluntary compliance by industry,” Aleszu Bajak wrote for Undark Magazine. But the consequent dissent from the public, journalists and legislators caused Burford to pull back on those changes. If another crisis on par with the Flint water crisis occurs, then wholesale changes to the EPA’s enforcement powers may become politically unfavorable. Nothing happens in a vacuum.

Yet even if the incoming administration shifts federal funds from renewable energy to fossil fuel production, they cannot easily prevent state and city governments from picking up the slack, Kopp said. Many of these local schemes are already in motion, such as carbon cutting among power plants in New England and California.

Kopp also noted the fundamental answer to how the Trump Administration will act on clean power is unclear because they haven’t released many details (more on that later). But potential cabinet appointee Chris Christie blocked cap-and-trade measures as well as a coal power plant while governor of New Jersey. Plus, the dropping prices of natural gas and solar energy should continue, impeding a return to coal, unless Trump’s policy deliberately disrupts them, Kopp said.

Tech boost with Trump?

The logo of Foxconn, the trading name of Hon Hai Precision Industry, is seen on top of the company's headquarters in New Taipei City, Taiwan March 29, 2016. Photo by Tyrone Siu/REUTERS

Companies like Foxconn, the Taiwanese company that manufactures Apple products may expand production in the U.S. thanks to Trump’s future trade policies. Photo by Tyrone Siu/REUTERS

Despite the recent dip in tech stocks, Donald Trump’s plans for a manufacturing revival may spill benefits into Silicon Valley. Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, described this week’s market slip as a temporary reaction.

“I don’t think the picture is as one-sided as [when] people say, ‘Oh, Obama was the tech-friendly president and Trump has said bad things about Jeff Bezos and Scott Cook’,” Atkinson said. “There are several things that a Trump administration could do that would be beneficial to tech.”

Greg Autry, an entrepreneur researcher, agrees. He predicts a shift away from the traditional start-up model, where young engineers develop a new product, get it financed and move the manufacturing overseas. He argued the Trump administration would create a regulatory and tax-friendly environment conducive to the tech sector.

“They’ll see an environment where exports are supported over imports, versus the current environment which supports ‘overshoreing’ and importation,” said Autry, who works at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California. Another perk would be the decline of so-called “high-tech harassment” — wherein overseas competition infringes on U.S. company patents, Atkinson added, a major problem in places like China. Meanwhile, foreign companies may view America as a new ground for development.

“Companies like Foxconn, the Taiwanese company that manufactures Apple products will be able to expand production here [in the U.S.] through automation,” Autry said. He added that more automation – the boogie man often described as robots stealing human jobs – would actually be a boon for U.S. manufacturing.

“We’ve dealt with automation since the 19th century,” Autry said. “What automation does is create a lot more products for us to enjoy at a lower cost, and we get more people working more efficiently creating more products.”

Autry argued when China’s manufacturing boom took 15-20 years to manifest, but a U.S. turnaround would be faster due to a “better head start” with infrastructure.

Green tech may also get a bump under Trump policies, though not as immediate as petroleum-based industries. “In the long run, manufacturing those solar panels or batteries in the United States is going to be more cost effective than it is today under adjusted tax and trade policy,” Autry said.

Atkinson, however, doesn’t see the same green future. While Department of Defense-related alternative energies — like developing new nuclear power — will likely continue, other green areas could falter.

An iPhone 6S Plus is seen at the Apple retail store in Palo Alto, California. Photo by Robert Galbraith/Reuters

Where does Trump stand on tech privacy? Photo by Robert Galbraith/Reuters

“When they come up with their next budget and they list what they’re investing in renewables, that number is going to be really small,” Atkinson said. With a Republican-held House and Senate, Trump will have little resistance to get his tech-impacting policies in place as quickly as possible.

“I think we’ll see an objective that benefits both Stanford engineering graduates and for blue-collar workers with high school degrees here in the United States,” Autry said. Though the elimination of temporary visas for high-skill workers, higher education funding and federal research spheres will hurt alternative avenues fueling the tech industry.

Another percolating concern is Trump’s stance on digital privacy, given he called for a boycott of Apple during their standoff with the FBI in the wake of the San Bernardino shooting.

But Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, believes any intrusion on consumer privacy would be met by strong rebukes from tech companies.

“People will stop using services that are revealed to use back doors with the government, and plenty of independent cybersecurity firms do constant audits of these platforms,” Cohn said. “Companies have already taken a pretty strong stance that it’s wrong to dumb down their security. They’ll lose in the marketplace.”

Obamacare, World Health Organization to take hits

The $1.1 billion to battle the Zika virus is long overdue and has been held up by a series of battles and setbacks. Photo by Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor/Handout via REUTERS

Zika virus became a partisan issue in 2016, as Congress debated over emergency funding.Photo by Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor/Handout via REUTERS

The Affordable Care Act in its current incarnation won’t survive if Trump makes good on his campaign promises, given Republicans will control the House and Senate. By this logic, federal funds for birth control and Planned Parenthood would most likely evaporate, though not immediately. Though a filibuster by Senate Democrats may block an official ACA repeal, Republicans could still defund Obamacare and items like grants for state Medicaid over the next two years through budget reconciliation.

But aspects of Obamacare may survive, according to Kaiser Health News:

Topping the list of ACA provisions likely to survive under Trump is the requirement that employers cover workers’ children up to the age of 26, analysts said. The measure is widely popular and not especially expensive.

A health law crafted by Republicans might also retain the ACA’s protections for people with preexisting illness seeking coverage, said Glenn Melnick, a health economist at the University of Southern California.

That could include relaxing the ACA’s limit on how much insurers can charge and allowing them to adjust premiums based on an individual’s health, he said. However, that might put the price of insurance out of reach for many.

The health law’s payment reforms might also survive in some form. The ACA prompted hundreds of experiments to control costs by rewarding doctors for efficiency and fixing payments for episodes of care or treating entire populations.

But a Trumpian shift to benefits like tax-free Health Savings Accounts, insurance premium deductions and insurance plans sales across state lines may not remedy the ultimate problem with health care: high costs.

“The theory is the consumers will be smart consumers, and they’ll look for value to put down costs,” said Lawrence Gostin, O’Neill Chair in Global Health Law at Georgetown University. “But the data don’t suggest anything of the sort.”

Many folks avoid buying health insurance until after they’re ill, and the prices for hospitalizations, surgeries and medicines are still very high. Trump’s health care plan doesn’t remedy those underlying costs, Gostin said. Certain aspects of Trump’s policies, however, may reduce the expensive portions of health care.

“Many trade deals that he’s against erect a system of intellectual property and patent protection,” Gostin said. “And it’s because of the patent protection that we have the high cost of drugs.”

Professor David L. Heymann (L), Chair of the Emergency Committee, and World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Margaret Chan hold a news conference after the first meeting of the International Health Regulations (IHR) Emergency Committee concerning the Zika virus and observed increase in neurological disorders and neonatal malformations in Geneva, Switzerland, February 1, 2016. Photo by Pierre Albouy/REUTERS

The U.S. holds major cards in deciding the head of the World Health Organization. Photo by Pierre Albouy/REUTERS

Another Trump proposal may expand oversight on medical practice. ACA payment reforms drove doctors to increase efficiency when it came to ordering medical tests, and those moves are likely to stay, if not expand. Trump also promised to crack down on the opioid crisis by reeling in doctors who push the medications, Gostin said Trump hasn’t explained how.

The CommonWealth Fund estimated swapping Obamacare for Trump’s health care plan could add $41 billion to the deficit, while 20 million could lose health care coverage. This number matches how many people have gained health benefits over the six years of Obamacare’s existence, but the net effect for insurance coverage without Obamacare remains unclear.

The President-elect will also select the next heads of the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Department of Health and Human Services, Gostin said, which may influence future research on topics like gun violence, emergency for outbreak like Zika and pollution-related illness. Plus, research funding for these agencies and the National Science Foundation, which has stagnated or declined since the George W. Bush administration, is largely decided by Congress.

But Trump’s health agenda will extend overseas too.

“Basically, no one can be elected to the head of the World Health Organization without U.S. support,” Gostin said. The WHO will soon appoint its next leader, but the global health agency’s recent positions have run contrary to those of Republicans. In recent years, the WHO and its governing body — The United Nations — have pushed for policies like taxes on sugary drinks and universal health coverage, including for refugees.

Gostin expects U.S. funding for these items to be clear sticking points for Trump and a Congress, which recently capped all payments to the United Nations.

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