April 15, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

It's been a little over a month since President Trump's inauguration. I,Science take a look at the impact on science and technology under the new administration.

By Gaia Stucky de Quay and Jonathan Bosch

Social media erupted with panic the day after Donald Trump officially walked in to the White House. The National Park Service (NPS) retweeted a photograph which compared  the crowd in attendance at Trump’s inauguration with the army of supporters at Barack Obama’s in 2009. The frenzy escalated, not just because of its implicit political message, but because of Trump’s reaction to it.

The next day, Trump called the director of NPS, demanding that they produce more photos, which he hoped would prove that attendance had been higher than the media had suggested. Sean Spicer, Trump’s press secretary, then appeared to react angrily to reporters, accusing them of minimizing the “enormous support that gathered on the National Mall”, even though by now, the evidence had shown that the crowds were in fact significantly smaller than both of Obama’s previous inauguration events. Trump’s term in the White House had hence started not with evidence, truth, or reason, but by perpetuating the newest expression in political discourse: ‘alternative facts’.

Censoring Science

To make matters worse, the Trump administration then allegedly issued suppression orders to the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA), in an apparent effort to prevent employees releasing updates via social media or press release. A USDA internal memo, obtained by Buzzfeed, went as far as instructing employees not to release any public facing documents, including “news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content”, until further notice. By the end of his first week in office, five agencies had been silenced by the new administration, most of them with a scientific background. In the case of USDA, it was the research arm that works on climate change that received the instruction. The new government is now proposing that scientific studies and data produced by the EPA should be reviewed by political appointees before publication. This would make it the first time government scientists would have to officially report to political representatives before publishing information.

Last week the administration made amendments to an educational web page called “Energy kids”, published by the Energy Information Administration (EIA). The changes, originally tracked by the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, appear to be aimed at reducing the importance of climate change in educational materials. On one page, two pie charts which showed coal making up 42% of electricity in 2014, and creating 76% of greenhouse gas emissions, have now disappeared.

Science has had a bit of rocky start under the new White House administration, but what exactly does this mean for scientists, science policy, and space exploration for the next four years?

A changing climate

Climate change policy is likely to see a ratchetting down over the next four years as the number of high-level US government appointees that have publically disavowed human caused climate change has leaped; Trump himself being the most prominent climate change denier.

We already know that the EPA has been put under the control of Scott Pruitt, a man who has sued the EPA fourteen times while he was attorney general in Oklahoma, and is on record as saying that the “[climate change] debate is far from settled”. Pruitt has been widely celebrated by members of the fossil fuel industry amidst a judge ruling that he release 3,000 emails between himself and executive members of the industry. The appointment further demonstrates a realignment of several federal agencies to better serve fossil fuel interests. Pruitt is likely to begin with the dismantling of several policies implemented by the EPA that he has already run up against in his previous role. He has filed suits against the EPA in efforts to halt amendments to The Clean Power Plan and the Clean Air Act. A key function of these acts is to help the United States comply with the Paris treaty – an international agreement Trump has pledged to withdraw from. Although, legally speaking, Trump will find it difficult to disentangle from the agreement within four years, he can still do much to frustrate US contributions to greenhouse gas reductions.

Will Happer, emeritus professor of Physics who was shortlisted as a potential science advisor to the Trump administration, explained that climate change is not worth investing in. He has said researchers working on climate change are a “glassy-eyed, chanting cult”. He argues that CO2 is actually good for our planet, and that climate change is driven by alarmists as a means of distracting the public from other more pressing problems.

In Trumps pledges for his first 100 days, he promised to remove federal restrictions on energy production. The pledge seemed to be aimed at maximising fossil fuel exploitation. Suspicions were confirmed when he promptly signed executive orders to expedite construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota pipelines – both projects that had been halted by the Obama administration on environmental grounds.

A silver lining

Despite these political setbacks in the US scientific agenda, Trump has shown clear enthusiasm when it comes to space exploration. He proclaimed at his inaugural speech that “we stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space.” Indeed, what better way to make America great again, than to revive the good old days of the Apollo moon landings? Previous presidents have often professed similar levels of eagerness for space travel. George HW Bush’s Exploration Initiative in 1989 proposed to have humans land on Mars by 2019. Similarly, Obama set a goal in 2010 to send humans to Mars by the 2030s. The steady fall in the NASA budget, however, has played a large part in the failure to carry out these long-term objectives; whereas in the 1960’s it peaked at over 4% of the federal budget, it has presently reached an all-time low of 0.5% within the past 50 years. Today, it is not enough to just say that we will someday journey to Mars­. A number of elements are needed to turn the pipe dream of space travel into a reality: the framework of a plan, a feasible timeline, technology development, a commitment like the world hasn’t seen since the Apollo program, and, ultimately, a lot of money.

Beyond the horizon

NASA currently has no idea what part they will play in Trump’s pledge to ‘drain the swamp’ in his first 100 days. If Trump is considering advancing today’s space agenda, he will have to consider five key areas: the SLS (Space Launch System) rocket, moon missions, Mars exploration, Earth observation, and international cooperation.

The SLS rocket is a hugely expensive rocket with an estimated cost of about 3 billion dollars per launch. Although opposed by Obama, the SLS was strongly supported by Congress, and Trump could see it as a flagship of American technological prowess. Conversely, he could cancel it and call upon private companies, such as SpaceX, who are developing more affordable rockets. Similarly, the battle between the Moon and Mars missions remains to be settled­. NASA rarely came onto the radar during the 2016 presidential campaign, however space analysts believe Trump doesn’t share Obama’s apathy towards the Moon. Michael Suffredini, CEO of Axiom Space, has said that the “Trump administration’s plan forward really supports what we’re interested in doing”, implying an increase in commercial endeavours moving out to cislunar space (the area between the Earth and the moon). This could suggest a Moon-then-Mars program, using the Moon as a technological stepping stone to Mars. This leaves two final issues, Earth observation and international cooperation­, which have a slightly worse outlook.

Earth vs. Mars

Although support has steadily been rising for dispatching humans to Mars, some could say the scales may have tipped too far. Robert Navarro and Robert Walker, senior advisers to the Trump campaign, stated that “NASA’s core missions must be exploration and science – and inspirational! These are the fundamental underpinnings of a Trump civilian space programme. NASA should be focused primarily on deep-space activities rather than Earth-centric work that is better handled by other agencies”. A clear concern is that Trump will free up money for his space plans by slashing the 2 billion dollars that NASA currently spends on its Earth Science Mission Directorate and divert that money towards space exploration. That would mean a big hit to Earth observation activities, and particularly to climate change science. It will also directly counter Obama’s efforts to increase Earth Science research by reducing the human spaceflight programs budget from $11 billion (62% of NASA’s budget) to $9 billion (47%) during his presidency. Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, has said that eliminating Earth Science at NASA “could put us back into the ‘dark ages’ of almost the pre-satellite era.” In short, “space research is a luxury, Earth observations are essential”.

More, not less cooperation

International cooperation is one of the biggest wildcards when it comes to space exploration under a Trump presidency. Will Trump help foster partnerships between space agencies around the globe to achieve a goal otherwise unfeasible, or will he paint China and other nations as rivals and use them to fuel a new space race? Trump’s recent travel ban for people of seven Muslim majority countries, and his promises to build a wall on the Mexican border, give us plenty of reason to suspect the latter. Ultimately, diverting money from climate change research into space exploration, and ceasing international co-operations, is a risk not only for the US, but the whole planet.

Trump’s advisers, Walker and Navarro, have strongly expressed that “space is the frontier on which American aspiration can become humankind’s inspiration … and yet Americans seem to know intuitively that the destiny of a free people lies in the stars”. Ultimately, Trump has an interest in space science as long as it keeps its focus firmly upwards, and not back down to Earth where we might learn more about the tumultuous complexity of our own planet and its changing climate. But if his plan is to make Earth ever more inhospitable, then we may well need his rockets to escape Greenhouse Earth.

Gaia Stucky de Quay is a postgraduate researcher in Earth and Planetary Sciences and Jonathan Bosch is studying for a PhD in global energy systems.

Banner image: Boston protest, Helen Besen