Nov 19, 2020 - Science

Biden's Day 1 challenges: Trust in science

Illustration of a rack of test tubes surrounded by lines and circles. 
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The American public's divided trust in science is a foundational crisis that Joe Biden will have to address in order to tackle the other crises awaiting him on Day 1, including a raging pandemic and climate change.

Why it matters: Partisan divides, eroded confidence and an exodus of experts from the federal government could hinder responses to both COVID-19 and climate change.

Repairing institutions and expanding public trust in vaccines “will have to be a very active project by Biden,” says Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

  • The percentage of Americans willing to take a potential COVID-19 vaccine dropped from 66% last summer to 50% in September, but it's grown again since then, according to a Gallup poll released Tuesday.
  • 4 in 10 people still said they wouldn't take a vaccine, citing safety concerns and worries that the process was rushed.

Distrust of a potential coronavirus vaccine is even higher in some Black communities. Black Americans are among those who have been historically underrepresented in clinical trials and sometimes experimented on in the past, and they are now disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

  • The Biden administration has "an opportunity to set the tone for inclusivity about who is a voice in science," says Namandjé Bumpus, professor and chair of the pharmacology department at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
  • She says involving Black scientists in the science and public health process could go a long way in establishing trust in communities and in making gains against the pandemic and with science more broadly.

Across government agencies, 1,600 federal scientists left their positions during the first half of the Trump administration, many of them at the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies with roles in addressing climate change.

  • 40% of high-level EPA positions remain vacant.
  • The Biden administration will have to try to bring experts back and give scientists a bigger role at the most senior levels of government, says Neal Lane, a former director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science Foundation who is now at Rice University's Baker Institute.
  • Lane also says Biden should reverse a recent Trump executive order making it easier to fire some civil servants.

The big picture: China's scientific prowess is growing, and several experts told Axios that competition from Beijing requires immediate attention from the next administration.

  • Biden has proposed $300 billion in federal R&D funding for science and technology over four years. It would "get the country started on the right foot," Lane says, "but it's not enough to deal with the rapidly increasing threat to the position of the U.S. in the world."
  • What to watch: The extent to which the Biden administration tries to restore scientific cooperation with China, including staffing up the CDC's Beijing office, which was cut under the Trump administration, and engaging with China via the World Health Organization.

Go deeper: Memo for President Biden (Neal Lane and Roger Pielke — Nature)

Go deeper