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What does Trump's win mean for US science?

11 November 2016

What does Trump's win mean for US science?

President-elect Donald Trump did not express many views about science and innovation on the campaign trail. But there are some clues to his positions on key issues.

Since Tuesday, many scientists have been laying out their concerns about the future of the US research community under a Trump administration.

Before the election, the non-profit organisation Science Debate asked the main candidates to outline their positions on different scientific points.

Mr Trump's vision for innovation in the country that currently spends most in the world on research and development reflects his businessman's perspective.

"Innovation has always been one of the great by-products of free market systems. Entrepreneurs have always found entries into markets by giving consumers more options for the products they desire," he explained.

But some in the scientific community are fearful about funding for basic research - fundamental science aimed at bettering our understanding of the world around us.

This is distinct from applied research, which is concerned with practical applications of science driven, for example, by commercial considerations.

And there are concerns that Mr Trump's professed stance on immigration will stymie American universities' ability to attract the best scientific talent from around the world.

Robin Bell, the incoming president of the American Geophysical Union, told the Washington Post newspaper: "There's a fear that the scientific infrastructure in the US is going to be on its knees," adding: "Everything from funding to being able to attract the global leaders we need to do basic science research."

In his responses to Science Debate, Mr Trump does say that the federal government should "encourage innovation in the areas of space exploration and investment in research and development across the broad landscape of academia".

He acknowledges that scientific advances "do require long-term investment", but he also raises the possibility of cuts, saying: "There are increasing demands to curtail spending and to balance the federal budget".

And he adds: "We should also bring together stakeholders and examine what the priorities ought to be for the nation."

It is the uncertain detail of this potential shift in priorities that some scientists fear.

Some researchers feel that Mr Trump's statements about climate change betray a disregard for the scientific method that does not auger well for other research areas under his administration.

The president-elect has called global warming a "hoax" and vowed to "cancel" the Paris agreement, which came into force earlier this month.

Last year, Mr Trump did briefly comment on the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which oversees some $30bn of medical research each year.

Right-wing talk show host Michael Savage asked the then-presidential candidate whether he would consider appointing him to head the NIH.

Mr Trump answered: "I think that's great," adding: "You know you'd get common sense if that were the case, that I can tell you, because I hear so much about the NIH, and it's terrible."

Whether this brief, presumably off-the-cuff exchange gives any serious insight into Mr Trump's position on biomedical research is unclear.

Responding to a Science Debate question about federal research for public health, Mr Trump replied: "In a time of limited resources, one must ensure that the nation is getting the greatest bang for the buck. We cannot simply throw money at these institutions and assume that the nation will be well served."

He added: "What we ought to focus on is assessing where we need to be as a nation and then applying resources to those areas where we need the most work."

However, there seemed to be few caveats to Mr Trump's enthusiasm for space exploration.

"Space exploration has given so much to America, including tremendous pride in our scientific and engineering prowess. A strong space program will encourage our children to seek STEM educational outcomes," he said.

But what exactly that will mean for the balance of distinct Nasa programmes, such as human spaceflight, robotic exploration and Earth observation, remains unsettled.

Earth observation - with its links to climate change science - suffered cuts under President George W Bush, and experts in that field will be waiting to see whether that is repeated under this administration.

In the last weeks of the campaign, Mr Trump appointed Robert Walker, a former congressman, to draw up a space policy. In Space News, Mr Walker outlined nine aspects of the plan.

And the President-elect's Republican ally Newt Gingrich - who has been tipped for a top job in the new administration - has been outspoken about what the US space agency should and shouldn't be doing.

Many uncertainties remain about Mr Trump's attitude towards science. Yet some researchers are positive about their prospects over the next four years.

Stanley Young, assistant director for bioinformatics at the National Institute of Statistical Sciences, told Nature News: "The popular impression I get is Clinton would go forward with business as usual and Trump is likely to upset things a bit. There's a lot that could be improved in science."

How do we avoid the antibiotics apocalypse?

Every year, at least 700,000 people die from drug-resistant infections. It is why government scientists have described antibiotic resistance as one of the greatest global threats of the 21st Century.

So what are people doing to try to avert the so-called antibiotics apocalypse? Well, it turns out, quite a lot.

First, there are those who are trying to get us to take fewer antibiotics. That is because the more antibiotics we all take, the more resistant bacteria become.

Jason Doctor, a psychologist at the University of Southern California, has been carrying out experiments to see whether it is possible to get doctors to prescribe fewer pills.

He persuaded more than 200 doctors to sign a letter to their patients, making a commitment to prescribe antibiotics more judiciously. They blew it up into the size of a poster and put it on the walls of their health clinics.

Then they experimented with a ranking system, sending doctors a monthly email telling them how many antibiotics they were prescribing inappropriately compared to their peers.

They set up alerts on doctors' computers, prompting them to question whether they really needed to prescribe antibiotics and they also found ways that doctors could appease persistent patients who demanded the medication.

When they tried all these different approaches together, it dramatically reduced the number of antibiotic prescriptions issued.

Some of these changes are now being implemented across the US and in other countries, but even if people were only given antibiotics when they really needed them, that would not solve the problem. Because while humans are a big market for antibiotics, there is an even bigger one.

In 1950, a chance discovery in a laboratory showed that antibiotics make animals grow faster. Since then, farmers all over the world have pumped them into their animals, even after scientific studies proved that bacterial resistance could pass from animals to humans.

But one country has shown that farmers who were once dependent on antibiotics can wean themselves and their animals off them.

The Netherlands has more animals per square metre than any other country on the planet and for years, those animals were routinely fed antibiotics. A ban on giving growth-promoting antibiotics to their animals had little effect as farmers used the same amount and just labelled them differently.

But after a series of health scares, the government decided to crack down. In 2009, farmers were told they had to reduce the amount of antibiotics they were giving their animals by 20% in two years and 50% in five.

Dik Mevius is an infectious disease specialist and vet who helped farmers draw up a plan to meet those targets.

They set up a database, revealing which farmers were the worst offenders, and stopped farmers from shopping round for antibiotics from different vets. Any vets or farmers who prescribed or used antibiotics unnecessarily were fined or lost their accreditation.

And, surprisingly, Dutch farmers got on board. They stopped using so many antibiotics, which, for many of them, meant they had to change the way they reared their animals.

"It really was a revolution," says Mr Mevius. "We reduced the amount of antibiotics used by 60% in just a couple of years."

But most countries are going in the opposite direction. It is thought that China, Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa will all double their use of antibiotics by 2030 and so resistance will spread. That is why some scientists are scouring the world, looking in the oceans, rainforests and deserts for new sources of antibiotics.

Researchers recently went to Panama and took samples from the algae-filled fur of a three-toed sloth. Others have been looking for new antibiotics in the saliva of Komodo dragons, although it is too early to tell yet whether they have been successful.

Then there are those scientists who are not looking for new antibiotics but who are taking the fight to the bacteria themselves. Kim Hardie is a microbiologist at Nottingham University who studies the way that bacteria communicate. Yes, bacteria communicate.

When a single bacterium arrives in your lungs, it hides from your immune system and from the antibodies already within you that might kill it. So it does not reveal its weapons - its toxins - but sits there, waiting.

"Once it realises it's a good place to multiply, then it communicates," she says. Separate bacteria count each other, until they sense there are enough. Then they draw their weapons and attack the immune system.

"If you have a single soldier against a castle, it won't do much to that castle," she says. "But if it waits for the rest of the army to arrive and they deploy their weapons at the same time, they can overcome the castle."

What, then, if you could stop bacteria communicating, so that even though you may have harmful bacteria in your lungs, they cannot count each other and so never launch an attack? Ms Hardie says it can be done and experiments in the laboratory have had good results. She thinks an antibiotic based on this principle could arrive on the market in around 10 years.

There are many other experiments and projects going on too. Success will largely depend on us learning much more about bacteria.

As they say in battle, know your enemy. So how do we avert the antibiotics apocalypse? We learn to outsmart bacteria.

NHS in England ponders sugary drinks ban

The NHS in England is asking staff and the public about whether it should ban or impose a tax on any sugary drinks sold in hospitals.

Chief executive Simon Stevens says he wants the NHS to set a healthy example and "practise what we preach".

He says trials at four NHS hospitals show either option could work.

If the plan goes ahead, England would be the first country in the world to take such action. The consultation runs until 18 January.

Subject to consultation, the drinks affected would be any with added sugar, including fruit juices, sweetened milk-based drinks and sweetened coffees.

It is expected that a 20% tax on sugary drinks could raise £20m-£40m a year, for example.

Proceeds would be ploughed back into patient charities and "health and wellbeing programmes" to keep the NHS's 1.3 million employees fit.

During recent trials, one hospital that banned sugary drinks found the overall total number of drinks sold did not decrease, meaning vendors were financially unaffected.

Mr Stevens said: "Confronted by rising obesity, type 2 diabetes and child dental decay, it's time for the NHS to practise what we preach.

"By ploughing the proceeds of any vendor fees back into staff health and patient charities these proposals are a genuine win-win opportunity to both improve health and cut future illness cost burdens for the NHS."

Health charities welcomed the idea, unlike the soft drinks industry.

Gavin Partington, of the British Soft Drinks Association, said: "It's hard to see how a ban on soft drinks can be justified given that the sector has led the way in reducing consumers' sugar intake - down by over 17% since 2012.

"In 2015 we also became the only category to set a calorie reduction target of 20% by 2020.

"Given that the government is looking to introduce a soft drinks tax in 2018 it seems slightly odd that another public body wishes to duplicate this process."

What do you think? Are you confident in Trump's election? Does the over prescription of antibiotics worry you? What are your views on the sugar tax? 

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