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Research at Carleton under a Trump presidency

<esident Donald Trump has not specifically threatened sources of science research funding, faculty say they are worried about the attitude his administration will take towards academic research.

“Carleton faculty bring in about $1 million in external funding each year. Federal funding, especially in the sciences, is important to Carleton, but we are not dependent on it,” said Christopher Tassava, Associate Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations.

Tassava said he worries, “about the notion that politicians know better than scholars—from historians and sociologists to geologists and biologists—what kinds of questions are worth answering. With very few exceptions, they don’t, and they should stick to their knitting rather than embarrass themselves arguing that this or that sort of intellectual inquiry is illegitimate or silly.”

Environmental studies professor Kimberly Smith has plans for research on the history of environmental policy. She intends to apply to the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH), a federal agency, for funding, but recently, she realized that such an application might be futile.

“I don’t think my research is particularly controversial. It’s focused on the Progressive Era, which was a long time ago,” she said. “Nevertheless, it occurred to me that since it is clearly about environmental issues, there may not be any point in asking for NEH funding. Even before Trump was elected, it could be very challenging to get funding for projects that look like they might be related to climate change or to environmental policy more generally. These kind of proposals often are scrutinized by people in Congress who want to demonstrate that federal funding is being used for things that they don’t think is valuable. I think that that scrutiny may well increase.”

Assistant physics professor Eric Hazlett is concerned with the Trump administration’s lack of scientific knowledge. “Science literacy needs to come through,” he said. “He hasn’t surrounded himself with anybody that’s really scientifically literate, so I don’t know how it’s going to be a positive outcome.”

Assistant chemistry professor Matt Whited agreed. He is currently researching sustainable metal-based catalysts. “This is true any time an administration changes over. You’re sort of waiting anxiously to see, in what ways are things going to change? Are they going to get better, or are they going to get worse?” Specifically, he is concerned about the changes that come with the Trump administration “both from a personal, selfish standpoint of where are my dollars coming from, in what am I going to be able to work on and in terms of how it affects the larger community.”

Whited currently has both private funding from the American Chemical Society and public funding in the form of a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation. While he is secure in his own funding for the time being, he remains concerned.

“There’s fear about the levels of funding decreasing, and I think there’s also some fear about scientists’ ability to follow their science wherever it leads,” he said. “I think the fear in a lot of places is that the scientific method will somehow be curtailed.”

Smith said that this second possibility is the most dangerous. “To me, the danger is not simply that your project might not be funded, or that you might be targeted and personally attacked for the research you’re doing, but that people may start to just kind of self-censor,” she said. “They may choose projects that are going to be less controversial. They will choose projects that have a better chance of getting funding, and that is the kind of decision-making that could shift scholarly interest away from these really critical, important issues of environmental management and climate science, towards other things that just seem less controversial.”

Whited expressed a similar opinion. “I think the more pressure there is to have a particular outcome or the more pressure there is not to do research in an area that may lead to a particular outcome really puts us on a slippery slope scientifically,” he said. “If that happens, science doesn’t serve the public in the same way.”

The fact that Carleton supports its faculty through endowment funds and that the private sector continues to be a source of funding, does not mean that Carleton will be immune to any potential cuts in federal funding.

“While I strongly believe that Carleton’s world-class faculty will succeed in obtaining grants to support their work no matter what the federal government does, I do worry about funding in areas where federal support is critical to younger scholars’ success,” Tassava said. “In the humanities, for instance, the National Endowment for the Humanities is one of just a few major funders of serious, long-term research projects. I worry that the other funders won’t be able to pick up the slack if, as threatened, the NEH is abolished.”

Smith pointed out that budget cuts in seemingly unrelated areas could impact academic research. “My research does rely on government documents. I will need access to the National Archives,” she said. “This is one of the things that people usually don’t think about, but it takes money to maintain an archive. It takes money to make sure it’s available to scholars. And simple budget cuts could end up restricting access.”

Gretchen Hofmeister, associate dean and chemistry professor, said that the way forward lies in participation in the political process. “Trump represents a new challenge because he is openly critical of scientific research and dismissive of scientific findings, such as the safety of vaccines and the anthropogenic role in climate change,” she said. “I believe that in order for a scientific understanding of issues related to human health and the environment to prevail in decision-making at the federal level, scientists must participate in the education of the general public and lobby members of Congress.”

In the meantime, the status of federal funding for and support of research remains uncertain.

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