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By Mitch Ambrose
Following a campaign in which he pledged to “choose science over fiction,” President-elect Joe Biden is expected to place an early emphasis on science policy in his administration.
In his victory speech on November 7, Biden said his first priority will be to address the COVID-19 pandemic through a plan that is “built on a bedrock of science,” and in his first major announcement as president-elect, he named a 13 member pandemic advisory panel. On taking office, he also plans to reinstate routine public pandemic briefings that are run by non-political officials and reverse President Trump’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization.
Alongside addressing COVID-19, Biden’s transition team website lists economic recovery, racial equity, and climate change as top priorities. Biden has said one of his first moves as president will be to rejoin the Paris Agreement, through which countries around the world have committed to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Biden’s climate plan sets a target for the US to reach net-zero emissions no later than 2050 through a combination of R&D investments, efficiency measures, and regulations. On energy innovation, the transition website states Biden will pursue “dramatic cost reductions in critical clean energy technologies, including battery storage, negative emissions technologies, the next generation of building materials, renewable hydrogen, and advanced nuclear.”
During the campaign, Biden also pledged to propose the “largest-ever investment in clean energy research and innovation,” with a spending target of $400 billion over 10 years. In parallel, he proposed $300 billion in R&D spending over four years on a “Made in All of America” initiative to foster new manufacturing jobs.
Such proposals are likely to face strong headwinds in Congress, especially if Republicans retain control of the Senate following two runoff elections in Georgia on January 5. However, an R&D spending surge is not completely out of the question, as prominent lawmakers from both parties have recently backed the idea in principle, citing climate change and strategic competition with China as key motivators.
US–China tensions are likely to remain a significant factor in science policy during the Biden administration. Rolling out his “Made in All of America” initiative this summer, Biden remarked, “The Chinese are spending multiple billions of dollars trying to own the technology of the future while we sit with our thumb in our ear.”
Elements of Biden’s science policy apparatus may quickly fall in place, assuming he follows the approach of President Obama, who named several high-level science officials before Inauguration Day. Details of Biden’s R&D spending priorities may come in his first budget request, which is due shortly after he takes office.
Beyond his ambitions for climate change and the pandemic, Biden will work to change the country’s course on visa and immigration policy. Apart from its focus on immigration enforcement, the Trump administration has moved to restrict visa programs used by students and high-skilled workers, drawing criticism from universities and scientific societies.
Conversely, Biden’s campaign platform stated that he will seek to increase the number of visas available for high-skilled workers and exempt recent doctoral graduates in STEM fields from caps on green cards. Such changes would require congressional cooperation.
The prospect of a new stance toward the admission of foreign students and researchers has already drawn praise within the scientific community. A letter from 81 Nobel Laureates endorsing his presidential bid cited, among other factors, “his understanding of the value of international collaboration in research, and his respect for the contribution that immigrants make to the intellectual life of our country.”
The author is Acting Director of FYI.
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