It’s a Whole New World…Reflections on what Trump and a GOP Majority mean for Computing Research

So, Trump.President-elect Donald Trump's seal

It’s taken a little longer to write up this analysis because it’s taken us a bit longer to start wrapping our heads around what happened. It’s not that it was hard to imagine a Trump victory, but a Trump victory *and* the GOP holding Congress…that seemed pretty inconceivable based on polling and the conventional wisdom. But that’s where we stand.

As you can imagine, there’s quite a bit of fog surrounding the shape of what’s to come, but what follows is our best attempt at sussing out the current landscape and our place in it. 

How will Trump Treat Science? 

We don’t know for sure. It’s probably a safe bet that the most obvious likely difference could be in the prominence science plays in his White House. We’ve seen 8 years of nearly unprecedented prominence for science policy issues at the presidential level: a suite of presidential or national-scale science initiatives; a well-staffed, proactive Office of Science and Technology Policy; a Science Advisor with the ear of the President; an active and well-supported President’s Council for Advisors on Science and Technology. Trump hasn’t given much indication throughout his campaign that he would place the same priority on his science efforts. He has commented only a few times on science policy, and thinking about those quotes and making some assumptions about the type of folks friendly to his campaign who might be tapped to serve in science roles in his Administration could give us some indications about what we’re in for: 

  • On the plus side, from the limited evidence we have, we can guess the Trump Administration will have a fairly conventionally Conservative view of the importance of the Federal role in supporting fundamental research in the “hard” sciences, including computing. He’s on record suggesting that investments “in research and development across the broad landscape of academia” deserve some priority, even though there are increasing demands to curtail spending to balance the federal budget. He believes that scientific advances do require long term investment, and that we “must have programs such as a viable space program and institutional research that serve as incubators to innovation and the advancement of science and engineering in a number of fields.” He’s also expressed a strong interest in removing the regulatory barriers and barriers to entry for entrepreneurs and innovators. In this respect, we’ll do ok because we know there’s a strong economic/competitiveness/national security case for computing research.

  • We perhaps ought to be concerned that he would likely support efforts by the House Science Committee majority to renew their attacks on the social sciences, environmental and climate change research. It’s possible/likely that we’ll see a renewal of efforts to defund NSF’s SBE directorate and redistribute that funding to the “harder” sciences as they’ve proposed in the recent past. He’s already singled out DOE spending on climate change initiatives as a potential place for cost-cutting. It’s also possible that we’ll see renewed scrutiny of science funded by NSF and other agencies, as a way of rooting out “silly-sounding science” and other instances of waste, fraud and abuse to demonstrate good stewardship of taxpayer dollars.
  • It’s also possible that science won’t rise to his level of attention. His agenda for the start of his term is packed with controversial actions: dismantling Obamacare, building the wall/border security/immigration reform; new substantial investments in infrastructure; renegotiating trade agreements; reforming the tax code. Science might receive “benign neglect” from him for the foreseeable future, which might not be terrible.

What does Full GOP Control Mean for Science?

The consolidation of GOP power has obvious implications for appropriations and authorizations. Going forward, the GOP can’t claim that obstruction by the Dems is hindering their efforts, so we may actually see something close to regular order in the appropriations process (as opposed to a more brinksmanship-based approach, where looming deadlines force compromises that result in last-minute omnibus bills). That’s good, in that it gives us a few more opportunities each cycle to have some influence on the final shape of the legislation. But it also means that Republicans will drive the prioritizing. We do still have GOP champions for science in both the House and Senate, and much of the efforts of the science advocacy community over the next few months will be targeted at bolstering those folks to defend science agencies in the FY 17 bills, and in what’s likely to be an even more tightly-capped FY18 cycle.

Of immediate concern is the final resolution of the FY17 appropriations cycle. Prior to the election, the conventional wisdom was that congressional leaders would back an omnibus bill during the lame-duck session before the current continuing resolution expires on Dec 9th. However, it now appears that the Republican leadership would prefer to pass a CR that postpones further work on appropriations until March or April of next year, giving the new Administration time to get up to speed. Of *key* concern, especially in the FY18 appropriations cycle which gets underway in February, is the desire of the GOP and Trump to relax the budget caps currently in place on defense spending. These are the caps backed by the sequester established by the 2011 Budget Control Act. The GOP argues that these caps are now unrealistic and are hurting our military and would like to see defense spending ramped up by some percentage. However, the GOP doesn’t want to increase overall spending to pay for the defense increase, and so any increase in defense discretionary spending would need to be offset by cuts to non-defense discretionary spending — a pot of money which includes agencies like NSF, NIST, NOAA, NASA, DOE and NIH. We will be reaching out to our champions and working with our coalition partners in the advocacy community to make the case that investments in research in these non-defense accounts ought to be prioritized, not cut.

On the authorizations side, it’s not clear that the election has changed the calculus very much between the Senate and the House concerning their differences on things like the America COMPETES reauthorization. The Senate is still seen as the bulwark against the more contentious provisions coming out of the House, including resurrected provisions defunding SBE or placing further review and oversight over NSF’s grant-making process.

So for those worried about the impact of a Trump administration on computing research policy, it’s not exactly time to get on the ledge. There’s a lot of inertia in federal agencies; the ship of state rarely turns on a dime. There may be a whole host of reasons for worry about the new administration, but we think we’re in a pretty good position to contend with this whole new world in science policy. 

As the fog continues to lift on the final shape of a Trump science administration, we’ll have all the details here.

It’s a Whole New World…Reflections on what Trump and a GOP Majority mean for Computing Research