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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

The words that actually persuade people on the pandemic

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A new study finds certain vocabulary is more effective at getting the public to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously.

Why it matters: Much of the language being used by the government, business leaders and the media to discuss the virus politicizes the issue, even if done inadvertently. This is causing large swaths of the population to tune out of information about the pandemic, veteran GOP pollster Frank Luntz told Axios.

Updated 17 hours ago - Health

U.K. first nation to clear Pfizer coronavirus vaccine for mass rollout

A health care worker during the phase 3 COVID-19 vaccine trial by Pfizer and BioNTech in Ankara, Turkey, in October. Photo: Dogukan Keskinkilic/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The U.K. government announced Wednesday it approved Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine, which "will be made available across the U.K. from next week."

Why it matters: The U.K. has beaten the U.S. to become the first Western country to give emergency approval for a vaccine that's found to be 95% effective with no serious side effects against a virus that's killed nearly 1.5 million people globally.

Biden's economic team will write a new crisis playbook

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Joe Biden's economic team faces a daunting task helping the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs or otherwise been financially ravaged by the coronavirus. But most of them have first-hand crisis experience, dating back to when Barack Obama inherited a crumbling economy when he took office in 2009.

Why it matters: Most of President-elect Biden's economic nominees served in the Obama administration, and wish that they could have gone bigger to help America recover from the 2008 financial crisis. But it's not going to be easy for them to push through massive fiscal spending in 2021.