Setting a President: How will the Biden administration affect science?

In his first week of presidency, Joe Biden has demonstrated an allegiance to science that his mask-refusing, bleach-injecting, and climate-change-denying predecessor failed to display during four catastrophic years of “leadership”. This sudden wave of presidential cooperation means science is back on the agenda. 

Just hours after his inauguration, President Biden elevated the position of the science advisor into the Cabinet as part of his new science task force, designed to advise him on how to curb both the pandemic and climate change. Unlike Trump, who entertained prominent climate change sceptics in the highest federal science positions, Biden’s selected advisers have rich histories of extensive scientific education and clear understanding of scientific policy. Has America finally, after four long years, got a leader who will take advice and encourage the growth of scientific knowledge, or is this new taskforce simply a performative display designed to win the world’s approval?

Joe and Jill Biden at his inauguration ceremony on 20th January. Image: Vox.

Many of us can’t help but be inherently sceptical of the US Government’s intentions. Much like the futility of the Duma under Imperial Russia, the climate change task force might just be another way to satisfy the public without actually doing anything. It is common knowledge that leaders and citizens around the world frowned upon Trump’s clear rebuttal of scientific fact, so Biden’s immediate action in prioritising science has helped further distinguish him from the former President and, perhaps, win back the approval of allied countries. At the very least, it is a clear rebuke of everything Trump stood for… Unfortunately, with Trump’s removal from social media, we have no hate-filled tweets to document his reaction to Biden’s first days in office, but I like to imagine that the former president is currently furiously tapping away through some anonymous account on AskFM.

Hazel Hayes on Twitter: "I saw this tweet shortly after this conversation  took place. We're so screwed.… "
Donald Trump tweeted 115 times about his denial of climate change. Image: Twitter.

It seems that Biden has been successful in restoring trust and repairing the many international scientific relationships broken during Trump’s presidency. The 120-day review that his task force will undertake over the next few months is required to analyse the scientific integrity of policies and record any policies which show “improper political interference” (scientific research which has been distorted via politics i.e through funding or political alliances). This review will also examine the roles and purposes of those involved with providing scientific advice to the Government. A memorandum on presidential actions, released on the 27th states that:

“Scientific and technological information, data, and evidence are central to the development and iterative improvement of sound policies… 

Improper political interference in the work of Federal scientists or other scientists who support the work of the Federal Government and in the communication of scientific facts undermines the welfare of the Nation.”

By resembling Obama-era memos and policies, it is clear where Joe Biden stands. Many applauded the review which has been long-awaited due to the restructuring of agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, under the Trump administration. Biden’s introduction of new roles, including the Climate Czar and Climate Envoy, shows a real commitment to repairing the damage done to scientific relations – but it’s not just this he plans to focus on: in a 200-page document the Biden-Harris administration makes several promises regarding the pandemic…

The first of these is to increase COVID testing by boosting the number of testing sites and the availability of rapid tests. Biden has stated that his goal is to deliver 100 million vaccines in his first 100 days of office and create 100 new vaccination centres. Advancements in tracking and data analysis at hospitals are also mentioned: despite the extremely outdated systems currently used in US healthcare, Biden’s creation of a COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force – designed to ensure distribution of scientific knowledge and inclusivity of the communities receiving the vaccine – also highlights his acknowledgement of the disparity between different communities. In another rebuttal of Trump’s actions, Biden also declared that the US will rejoin the World Health Organisation, after their withdrawal in July 2020.

Biden has signed 42 executive actions since taking office. Here's what each  does - CNNPolitics
One of Biden’s first actions as President was to re-join the World Health Organisation. Image: CNN.

Despite the separate task force dedicated to these goals, they are still highly ambitious – perhaps borderline impossible. Public knowledge of the virus is commonly rooted in misinformation, a direct result of the previous government’s incompetence, so regardless of data-gathering and vaccine distribution, will enough people actually take the vaccine? 

Moreover, the inequality in races most affected by the pandemic is very plainly due to systematic racism as a product of inequality between the classes. This is not an issue that Biden can solve with one task force; COVID has only exposed pre-existing problems intertwined in the very structure of American politics and society. How can a 400-year-old issue be addressed with one ‘Health Equity’ team? Some may find it insulting to suggest that true “health equity” can be achieved in a country where almost 45 million people live in poverty with no access to free healthcare. Around 45,000 Americans die every year because they can’t afford health insurance and a shocking 25% of the population state that delay getting medical help due to the high cost. Treating the consequences of inequality (i.e the higher COVID rates in disadvantaged communities) through this new task force, will not ensure long-term, sustainable, reliable health equity for the poor. However, this may be the first step towards establishing free healthcare for all Americans. 

There is no doubt that Biden’s administration will have a positive influence on the scientific community. His policies and actions so far have been a far-cry from actions under the previous government, however, we must remain sceptical of the optimistic promises that have been made. With the US having the greatest number of COVID deaths and cases on top of continued civil unrest, the Biden-Harris administration certainly has a lot on their plate. With thousands of civilians suffering, we can only hope that their ambitious strategies can actually work.

By Tharushi Wijesiri

Header image: Forbes.