Not too long ago, an essay was published on this website talking about science, the ongoing American election, and Donald Trump’s ridiculous stand on various scientific issues. Back then, Mr Trump was not the GOP’s presidential nominee, although few doubted he was soon going to be. Now that he is, his ideas on science — and those of his pick for vice-president, Mike Pence, the overly religious, scientifically illiterate, populist governor of Iowa — went, much like his entire presidential campaign, from being a ridiculous joke to becoming a dangerous precedent.
Between them, the republican nominees believe that smoking does not kill, are hardline creationists, and scoff at climate change. Whatever your impression about America may be, it cannot be denied that the country’s stance on many issues has shaped those issues around the world. And, with the US being one of the biggest contributors to science today, what its coming president believes in is important. Now, fortunately, not a lot of people believe that Mr Trump will be the next president, and neither do poll numbers. But he will be part of the legislature and that is troubling enough for science.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you see it), Mr Trump has spoken little about physics. Perhaps the closest he has ever come to physics is when, sometime last week, a random fellow used suction cups to scale Trump tower. (Wired, staying faithful to the unanimously approved superhero naming scheme, called him the Gecko Man.) He has, however, claimed somewhat indirectly that his uncle’s genius is inheritable, and that because his uncle was a genius (which is a fair, testable claim) he too is.
On the democratic side, things are only slightly better. Vice-presidential pick, Tim Kaine, is as boring in this regard as he is in general — by his own admission. But Mr Kaine, given that he knows how to handle his e-mails, is probably the most fitting candidate for the country’s top office among all four contestants. As for science, he has once again been silent on physics as far as I know, but on the bright side he has been vocal about climate change. It would pay to be cautious here because Mr Kaine has played for both teams: he has set up a climate change commission in Virginia as governor and also done much to support oil drilling and coal power production. He is quick to describe himself as a moderate, although “undecided” would be a more moderate word to describe him. A more realistic picture would be that he has constantly tried to please both environmental activists and individuals with interests in non-renewable resources, and, surprisingly enough, has kept them both happy so far.
All said and done, Mr Kaine is probably in the running because he helps Hillary Clinton win over the Spanish-speaking population, a demography the Trump camp probably does not even realise exists. Among other things the Trump camp does not realise exists are evolution, stem-cells, climate change. Mr Pence even vigorously opposed Barack Obama’s support for embryonic stem-cell research. What brings the Trump-Pence duo closest to physics is probably the principle of uncertainty. As a recent SciAm article quoted Michael Werner, “we really don’t know what a Trump-Pence administration would do”. And this practice of celebrating a hazy, vague non-policy just to make it seem like a policy exists has been a signature move of Trump’s campaign right from the start: state what you plan to do, without ever stating how.
Another aspect of a Trump presidency that would affect science adversely, albeit indirectly, is immigration and his general fear of outsiders. As Nature pointed out, in America, nearly 380,000 people in science come from other countries. Building a wall, as Mr Trump plans, would end up alienating scientists and the country is in no position to afford that. The effects of such a move will prove to be heavily damaging in the long run. The only entertaining thing about Donald Trump is his Twitter feed, which stands as a silent witness to him being possibly the most unworthy presidential candidate America has ever elected till date. Next to that, of course, is @DeepDrumpf, a neutral network bot built by MIT and trained to speak like the republican candidate, based on his past speeches.
As a physicist, to me, the radio silence all parties have maintained in this American election is troubling for two reasons. First of all, whoever gets elected, the country will be going in blindfolded to face either the juiciest policies supporting physics research or the blandest ones curbing it, and certain other countries may follow suit sooner or later, and this will eventually lead to all international experiments in which the US is a participant being adversely affected — this is particularly important since we are in the midst of doing some of the most effective experimental work as humanity, from neutrinos to gravitational waves to having a possible restructuring of the Standard Model looming above our heads.
Second is the fact that, over the past year, some of the most influential characters in America could have said so much and done so much to boost scientific research but did not. Their voice could have made a difference in the way society views science and instead one spent it apologising for misusing her e-mail account and another wasted it on describing his fantasy ten-foot wall. For now, it appears that all science — except, perhaps, climate change — will remain under-appreciated in Congress at least for the next four years. Somebody please reset the stardates. ❖