Yale faculty members have mixed feelings about federal research funding under Donald Trump’s presidency. Many say the prospects for funding look bleak, while others are hopeful that Trump will be a boon for medical research.
While Trump has not explicitly said he will support or cut federal funding for academic research, Yale faculty from across many departments and professional schools are concerned about what a Trump presidency will mean for their fields based on his campaign’s rhetoric. Faculty are searching for a silver lining in an unpredictable and often contradictory president-elect, according to researchers and professors interviewed by the News.
“Faculty raise concerns about what might happen, but people are continuing to do their work,” Gary Brudvig, director of the Yale Energy Sciences Institute and professor of chemistry said.
Mark Hochstrasser, professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, said the Trump administration’s stance on science, particularly climate change, is discouraging. He added that his lab, like most academic labs in the biological sciences, receives research support from the federal government. Because federal science funding has seen a downward trend for the last 15 years, Hochstrasser said further cuts would be “devastating.”
A CHANGING CLIMATE IN WASHINGTON
Science research is often expensive because it requires state-of-the-art equipment and teams of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty, according to Yale’s Deputy Provost for Research and physics professor Steve Girvin.
“Yale has a vast array of sponsored research projects with total external funding that exceeds $650 million a year,” Girvin said. “Most of this is federal funding, but private foundations and corporations also contribute importantly to the mix. Sponsored research projects span from clinical trials for new cancer therapies, to studies of earthquakes, cosmology, computer security, cognitive science and quantum information science.”
Brudvig expressed uncertainty about what to expect from a Trump presidency, but added that he was concerned by Trump’s stated skepticism of climate change. Trump’s assertion that climate change is a Chinese-created hoax and his cabinet appointment of climate change deniers are causes for concern, Brudvig said. He added that he fears the Trump administration will “abandon climate agreements that have been made.”
While expressing their concerns, faculty also discussed ways to make progress despite ongoing decreases in federal research funding. Chemistry professor Anna Marie Pyle said she is hopeful that the new U.S. Senate Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a staunch supporter of research funding, will “interface effectively” with Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-K.Y., and Trump.
Girvin said his biggest concern is about science leadership in the White House, adding that it is crucial the science community support good scientists and engineers who, despite disagreements with Trump, volunteer to serve in advising roles in the Office of Science and Technology Policy and on the President’s Council of Advisors in Science and Technology. Girvin said it would be “disastrous if the community turned against such volunteers” because the future president needs to be informed with unbiased scientific advice.
“If the new administration combines tax cuts with increased investment in infrastructure and defense, the money will need to come from somewhere,” Pyle said. “To reduce the impact on research and education budgets, it is vital for students and faculty to participate actively in lobbying efforts with congressional leaders throughout the country. Promoting the benefits of science and engineering through public outreach is also very important.”
Economics professor Costas Meghir said the work he does that requires federal funding is mostly experimental fieldwork in childhood development, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health. Meghir said that while the Trump administration has not spoken specifically about funding yet, research funding has been declining over the years — including during the Obama administration — and given the rhetoric of Trump’s campaign, he is not optimistic about seeing that trend reversed.
The U.S. used to spend a much higher proportion of its gross domestic product on research and development than it does now, Meghir said, and this decline in spending poses negative consequences.
“Research and development is not just about what universities do, but ultimately has to do with long run growth in the economy,” Meghir said. “In some sense, you kind of hit a wall in terms of growth given the resources you have, and the only way to expand that is research across all fields, both basic and applied research, and if we don’t address that, other discussions on growth are kind of immaterial.”
RELIANCE ON FUNDING
David Simon, the director of graduate studies for African Studies, said the African Studies program is especially dependent on federal funding, specifically on four-year grants. Title VI of the Higher Education Act funding — which supports language acquisition — is particularly important for attracting students, supporting programming such as design classes and conferences, engaging with Gateway Community College and video conferencing with students at African institutions, Simon said.
Simon added that the funds in question are not so much for research as for making the African Studies program possible. If federal financial support for the program disappeared, Simon said he would hope that the University would allocate more of its own resources to the department, but acknowledged this could be a challenge if other programs and departments are also losing federal funding.
“In the past, the Republican Congress has tried to take away the programs under which we receive funding, and the Connecticut delegation has been a strong advocate on our behalf,” Simon said. “I don’t know if it’s necessarily a matter of Trump per se, but now that there’s someone from the same party as this Congress that has tried to seize the education mandate as a luxury expenditure or expendable portion of the budget, that’s what has me concerned.”
The MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies currently receives $1.5 million annually from the U.S. Department of Education through the National Resource Centers program and the Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships program, according to MacMillan Center Deputy Director George Joseph. He added that the funding between 2014 and 2018 will total about $5.6 million, going toward international affairs teaching and programming, student term-time and summer fellowships among other programs. Outside of the Department of Education contributions, individual faculty get research support from the U.S. Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies that sum to about $150,000 per year, Joseph said. He noted that while federal funding is a relatively small part of the MacMillan Center’s finances, it is a critical source of support for area study programs and for faculty recipients. If federal funding were eliminated, the MacMillan Center would look to scale back some of its programs or turn to University resources and private fundraising to sustain them, Joseph added.
“It is simply too early to know what the longer term implications are for federal research support in the social sciences,” Joseph said. “We certainly are concerned that funding opportunities could be reduced or eliminated, particularly because [Trump] has already signaled that he wants to scale back the U.S. Department of Education that houses many of the key programs that support area and international studies programs.”
Jacob Hacker GRD ’00, a political science professor, said federal funding is “indispensable” but hopefully would not affect teaching if it were rescinded. Still, he said research sustains political science and the social sciences more generally, and also voiced his concerns about other “attacks” such as taxation on endowments.
Accompanying Trump’s policies might be a “climate of intimidation,” Hacker said. He said the possibility of intimidation for people who speak out against Trump’s policies could be problematic because social scientists are supposed to hold the government accountable for harmful policies. Hacker added that scholars might not be as willing to speak up against Trump’s policy changes in light of threats to their research budgets and other academic threats.
“More important, a climate of intimidation would be bad for students as well as scholars,” Hacker said. “We need intellectual diversity, including conservative voices, on campus. But universities are built on the principle of free expression and in particular the commitment to ‘speak truth to power.’ We may see that commitment tested in the months and years ahead.”
A BOOST FOR MEDICAL RESEARCH?
The future of biomedical research, meanwhile, seems more promising, according to Yale School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern.
“I’m optimistic in that there has always been broad support for the National Institutes of Health from both the Democratic and Republican parties,” Alpern said.
The NIH funds the vast majority of biomedical research conducted at Yale, as research laboratories at Yale receiving $388.5 million in NIH funding this past fiscal year.
Alpern said the two parties differ mainly in how they choose to pay for the medical research that they both support. While Democrats traditionally push for tax increases and decreases in defense spending in order to fund such research, Republicans search for funding cuts in other sectors like health insurance. Still, both Democrats and Republicans want to advance biomedical discoveries and find new treatments, Alpern said.
Furthermore, Alpern suggested that NIH funding may increase with Trump’s presidency and Republican control of Congress. Trump’s philosophy of stimulating the economy by increasing spending could make the NIH a beneficiary of this trickle-down economic approach, stimulating medical research while at the same time boosting economy.
Alpern said that “there have always been powerful Republicans supportive of medical research.” He added that former Speaker Newt Gingrich has been “one of the biggest advocates for NIH funding” and could be a close adviser to the Trump administration.
Alpern is also optimistic about the Republican hold in Washington. He said the past few years under Obama have been “not that great” due to the government’s partisan stalemate. The NIH budget has largely remained stagnant in the face of worsening inflation in recent years, and Alpern said he hopes that a Republican majority will allow budget increases to pass through legislation more easily in the coming few years.
One area of research Alpern is worried about, however, is stem cell research. Many stem cell laboratories use human embryonic cells and tissue to conduct experiments, and the Republican stance against abortion rights could potentially interfere with funding of such research, Alpern said.
“It’s possible that they’ll impose restrictions on how the NIH spends its money,” Alpern said. “I hope that won’t be the case.”
Robert Sherwin, director of the Yale Center for Clinical Investigation, oversees a different component of medical research on campus: clinical trials.
Clinical testing of new treatments and drugs is primarily done at academic institutions, Sherwin said, adding that funding of such research is critical to the eventual translation of laboratory discoveries into medical cures. Sherwin hopes that Trump will appreciate the significance of such research.
Pharmaceutical companies recognize the importance of clinical trials, Sherwin said. Clinical research gives pharmaceutical companies a clue to which drugs will be effective in humans, and Sherwin anticipates that the pharmaceutical industry will advocate on behalf of clinical researchers because it also benefits their own industry.
“I do think it is conceivable, since Trump is a businessman, that if people can convey to him that actually an investment in NIH funding and research at the academic level is critical for drug development, he will see that research from a long-term perspective is a good financial investment,” Sherwin said.
Yale is home to 835 research faculty, over 75 percent of whom are associated with the School of Medicine.