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Physics Science Policy and how it affects Physics Careers

  1. Nov 9, 2016 #1
    This thread is mainly because I'm legitimately scared for science funding and my career, based on the new POTUS's (lack of a) science policy. One random article I pulled up by searching "Trump science policy" had this ending line: "...In short, a Trump administration would mean a crippled US research effort and politics that are based on short-term economic interests rather than science."

    Is this a legitimate concern to have, that science funding could be drastically cut and should I worry about how it would affect my career?
    What should I do, if so? I'm into condensed matter, electronics and superconductivity. Currently 3rd year undergrad. I'm scared I won't even be able to get a funded Ph.D at this point if there's a huge lack of funding, so reassurances (or tips) would be appreciated!
    Also, if for some reason this is in the wrong section, feel free to move it.
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 9, 2016 #2

    Vanadium 50

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    Who knows?

    However, Mr. Trump is the President-elect, not the President. He's not in charge until the FY18 budget.

    Next, the academic press was predisposed to dislike Trump, so they were predisposed to paint a gloom and doom picture. Doesn't make it wrong, but doesn't make it right, either.

    Finally, the budget is the responsibility of Congress (there is a President's Request), and the party in power in Congress remains unchanged.
  4. Nov 9, 2016 #3
    In the November issue of PHYSICS TODAY there is an http://citation.aip.org/content/aip/magazine/physicstoday/article/69/11/10.1063/PT.3.3360 [Broken] basically stating that although there are report from the National Academy of Science, Engineering, and Medicine warning of our loss of leadership in science, technology (2006) that not much has been done. The research funding as a percent of the GDP has decreased from 16.5% in 1976 to 10.2% in 2015. There seems to be a concern in Congress and the President for the falling support but fiscal woes have prevented more investments in these areas. While Congress show good intent by authorizing new programs it fails to appropriate the funds adequately for them. Authorization and appropriation are two separate processes and committees.

    Congress feels that industry should do the basic research. Industry on the other hand has become more dependent on the government and universities for this. The article points out the gloomy statistic that in 2014 only 65% of PhD in the physical science recipients had a job or postdoc commitment within one year of graduation. It was 60% for engineers. The problem is too little funding.

    President Obama has been called the most science savvy president since Jefferson.by his science advisor John Holdren. He proposed a mandatory account of $4.7 B for six agencies for 2017 which Congress is unlikely to approve. Trumps fiscal plan calls for lower taxes putting much pressure on the budget so it doesn't seem likely he will be able to do much even if he wanted to

    You are out about 7 years from seeking a job at a PhD level and a lot will change between now and then. Who can predict.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 8, 2017
  5. Nov 10, 2016 #4
    My wife (also a Physics PhD) and I have tried to position ourselves over our career to have diverse enough skill sets to keep dinner on the table regardless of inevitable variations in government funding.

    After 9/11/2001, we shifted from a strong industry focus to military and law enforcement related interests to meet real research needs, but we saw a decline in that area coming as early as 2010, so when the bottom fell out in 2013, our backup plan (a major shift to non-DoD consulting) was in place. But we are also remaining active in work related to military and law enforcement so that when funding increases once again in those areas, we will be well positioned to do the highest quality science once there is funding available. The DoD research labs (and contractors) are willing to maintain collaborations (sharing info, equipment, brainstorming problems), they just are not writing big checks right now.

    The big picture funding view shows several main sources:

    1. NSF and similar pure science gov sources
    2. NASA, NIH and similar applied science gov sources
    3. Department of Defense with very specific applied needs
    4. Private industry that sells to defense and law enforcement with very specific applied needs
    5. Academia, where physicists are paid to teach and may or may not have requirements for external funding also

    A physics career that is robust will be able to cash some checks from at least 3 of the 5. Plan accordingly. Diversify. Blame yourself for lack of diversification if you fail rather than blaming political winds.

    Over a 40 year career, political winds are going to blow in various directions. Failing to prepare for that is YOUR fault, not the fault of science policy.
  6. Nov 10, 2016 #5


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    Secretary of Energy can theoretically go to the Senate on Jan 20. NRC Chair, Science Adviser on Jan 20. Yes they will be under control of the 2016 budget, but free to start moving money and people around. I think the most interesting single decision for government related science in the next six months or so is the choice of these leadership positions.

    Any suggestions?
    Last edited: Nov 10, 2016
  7. Nov 11, 2016 #6

    Vanadium 50

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    Not all that free. The Secretary can say "high energy physics is down and nuclear physics is up" but not "science is down and nuclear security is up". The Office of Science is a line item. They can't be mixed.
  8. Nov 11, 2016 #7
    There is a article on concern for future federal government science policy just out on PhysicsWorld.com website

    A few excerpts are worth noting.

    Michael Lubell public affairs director of the American Physical Society said "We're looking at a black hole," he says. "Nobody knows what this guy is going to do – and I'm not sure he does." This comment is at least in part due to an attempt to contact Trump's campaign people on science, He said "The only name that surfaced was from a small college in Iowa with a background in economics – and we got no response from him."

    The article goes on to state that the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is most important for the scientific community and is headed up by the presidents science advisor.

    He goes on to wonder if Trump will even appoint a science advisor he said "No law says the position must be filled and if Trump says 'we don't need the OSTP*', Congress won't fund it."
  9. Nov 11, 2016 #8


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    Yes. And as I understand it, a major shift in DoE emphasis would have near immediate efffect, with every researcher and postdoc reconsidering the focus of their latest grant proposal draft, every Phd program applicant reconsidering the program they pursue.
  10. Nov 11, 2016 #9
    You should realize this is not a new issue. For example, in past decades, much government R&D spending was fueled by the cold war and by the space race. The space race came to an end and the cold war nominally came to an end. My specialty was in solid-state physics. At one time government and private industry poured a lot of money into materials-related R&D. Major universities had Materials Research Laboratories (MRLs) heavily funded by Department of Defense funds. My PhD work was mainly funded by the Office of Naval Research. But in the ~mid-90s funds increasingly were swapped over to software. At the same time, major industrial corps realized that materials-related R&D was very expensive and the profit margins on devices and hardware was too slim. Software R&D required a lot less capital investment and also yielded much higher return on investment. And the remnants of the cold war is heavily waged over the InterNet these days. I agree with Dr. Courtney that flexibility and adaptability are key to a sustained career.
  11. Nov 12, 2016 #10


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    Article by Trump space policy advisers Robert S. Walker and Peter Navarro:

    In other words, goodbye NASA-centric funding for the ISS (in my view a white elephant). However:
    Not just Mars, everything in the solar system gets foot prints.
  12. Nov 17, 2016 #11


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    Since we are on the topic of what science policy may look alike under President-elect Donald Trump, I noticed while surfing online that his uncle, John G. Trump, was a professor of electrical engineering at MIT, having helped to develop rotational radiation therapy, and developed, with Robert J. Van de Graaf, one of the first million-volt X-ray generator.


    Now I'm not sure how close Donald Trump was to his uncle, but I'd be curious if that family history may influence his thoughts about science and technology.
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