Joe Biden will soon be president of the United States, and scientists the world over are breathing a collective sigh of relief. But concerns remain: nearly half the country voted for President Donald Trump, whose actions have repeatedly undermined science and scientific institutions. Biden will have his work cut out for him in January as he takes the helm of a politically polarized nation.
“Our long national nightmare is over,” says Alta Charo, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin Law School, quoting president Gerald Ford’s famous 1974 remarks about his predecessor Richard Nixon’s scandal-ridden term. “I couldn’t say it any better than that.”
Once Biden takes office on 20 January, he will have an opportunity to reverse many policies introduced by the Trump administration that were damaging to science and public health. This includes actions on climate change, immigration and the COVID-19 pandemic, which could claim more than a quarter of a million lives in the United States before Trump leaves office in January.
Researchers are hopeful that much of the damage can be repaired. With Trump out of the picture, says Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physicist and nuclear-proliferation specialist based in Islamabad, “instead of dog-eat-dog, maybe we will have a modicum of international cooperation, greater adherence to laws and treaties, more civility in politics across the globe, less ‘fake news’, more smiles and less anger”.
Biden, a Democrat who served as vice-president under former president Barack Obama, has promised to ramp up US test-and-trace programmes to help bring the coronavirus under control, to rejoin the Paris climate agreement to fight global warming, and to reverse travel bans and visa restrictions that have made the United States a less desirable destination for foreign researchers. Biden’s vice-president elect, Kamala Harris, an attorney and US senator from California, will be the first woman to achieve one of the top two offices in the country. She is also the first Black woman and the first Asian-American to be elected vice-president, in a country that has been riven by racial tensions.
“It is testament to the strengths and resilience of US science that it has weathered the past four years,” says James Wilsdon, a social scientist at the University of Sheffield in the UK. “It can look forward now to a period of much-needed stability and support from [Biden’s] administration.”
One of Biden’s first orders of business will be to put a more aggressive pandemic response plan in place. On 6 November, the United States saw more than 130,000 new coronavirus infections recorded in a single day—the highest number reported anywhere across the globe since the outbreak began. On 9 November, Biden named several prominent medical and public health figures to a coronavirus task force.
Trump has sought to downplay COVID-19 while opposing state and local efforts to contain the coronavirus as too costly. By contrast, Biden’s team has committed to ramping up COVID-19 test-and-trace programmes, working with state- and local-level officials to implement mask mandates nationwide and strengthening public-health facilities.
Biden’s team has also promised to “listen to science”. The Trump administration has repeatedly sidelined government scientists at public health agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration throughout the pandemic. With Biden in charge, says Charo, “there's a wide range of government agencies that now are going to finally get a chance to do their jobs properly”.
Biden's administration will also re-open lines of communication with other countries and international organizations in its fight against the coronavirus. Trump pulled the United States out of the World Health Organization earlier this year, criticizing the international agency for supporting China, where the outbreak began. “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris understand that no country can face our current challenges alone and hopefully will re-engage and help re-form key science-based multilateral institutions,” says Marga Gual Soler, an expert in science diplomacy and policy adviser to the European Union.
Another top priority for Biden will be to reverse many of the policies impacting climate, the environment and public health put into place under Trump.
At the top of the docket is the 2015 Paris climate agreement. The United States formally withdrew from this accord on 4 November, but Biden has said he will rejoin the pact after taking office in January. Biden and Harris also campaigned on a US$2-trillion plan to boost clean energy, modernize infrastructure and curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Biden’s election holds particular significance for scientists at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has suffered under Trump’s efforts to roll back regulations, bolster industry influence and undermine the way science is used to craft rules to curb pollution and protect public health.
“The Trump administration tried to mutate the DNA of the organization,” says Dan Costa, a toxicologist who headed the agency’s air, climate and energy research programme until January 2018 and is one of numerous veteran scientists at EPA who ultimately elected to depart during Trump’s tenure. It will take a while for the agency to recover, but a cloud has lifted, says Costa. “I’m sure people working at the EPA are breathing a sigh of relief.”
A tense election
Although Trump has filed lawsuits in multiple states questioning vote counts, Biden amassed enough electoral college votes to claim victory after more than four days of counting in several swing states.
The record election turnout shows that "democracy beats deep in the heart of America", Biden said in a statement. "It's time to put the anger and the harsh rhetoric behind us and come together as a nation," he said. "It's time for American to unite. And to heal." Trump has not conceded the election and has said it is "far from over".
“I’m still nervous,” says Ali Nouri, a molecular biologist and president of the Federation of American Scientists. “It's still not clear to what extent the president is going to contest the election. I think unfortunately, he has undermined some core democratic principles that we've always adhered to in this country.”
This fear runs deep. During his tenure in the White House, in addition to censoring and sidelining government researchers, Trump regularly attacked political opponents as well as the media, the courts, the electoral system and other Democratic institutions. These actions spurred some 4,000 people to sign a statement drafted by scientists that raises concerns about the state of American democracy in the run-up to the election.
The closer-than-expected vote hardly served as the rebuke of Trump that many scientists were hoping for, nor did it provide a ‘blue wave’ across Congress that would make it easier for Biden to advance his science agenda. Democrats lost seats in the House of Representatives, although they will continue to hold a majority. And they might not wrest control of the Republican-led Senate, where the final roster will not be decided until Georgia holds a pair of run-off elections in January.
Although Biden’s election represents an imminent end to a presidency that often disregarded truth, science and evidence, many scientists fear that the movement launched by Trump will continue to haunt the United States well after he has left office.
“The political defeat of Trump is enormously important. But this is not a repudiation of this larger assault on democratic civility in the United States,” says Zia Mian, a physicist and co-director of the Program in Science and Global Security at Princeton University in New Jersey. Trump has undermined core values of truth and equality, Mian says, and without those, “democratic debate is not possible”.
This story was written with additional reporting by Davide Castelvecchi, Heidi Ledford, Nidhi Subbaraman and Alex Witze.
This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on November 7 2020.