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The Election 2016: A Scientist Reflects
Posted on November 15th, 2016 by Patrick C. May, PH.D. in Pharma R&D
Like many of my science colleagues in the U.S., I was gobsmacked by the outcome of the presidential election last Tuesday. With some exceptions, most of my academic and industry colleagues were supporting the Clinton campaign in the general election. We blindly went along with the polls indicating a substantial, if not insurmountable, lead for Clinton over Trump and were confident in her victory. Looking back through the fog of a long night of drinking as the votes were tallied, that thinking now has all the hallmarks of confirmation bias. As defined by Wikipedia (the good Wiki, not the likely Russian-influenced one that inserted itself into the election), confirmation bias is a tendency to interpret information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs, and is something all scientists strive to avoid when interpreting their own research data. Scientists are skeptics by nature and have no problems with looking askance at other people’s data until it can be replicated in another lab. And many of us are dismissive of epidemiologic studies and/or post-hoc clinical trial analyses because they are subject to design flaws, inaccurate reporting, sampling errors, etc. And yet, we accepted the polling results because we simply could not believe that Donald Trump would be elected president.
Now the American people have spoken, and similar to my UK science colleagues following the stunning Brexit referendum, many of us are struggling with the implications of this historic upset for the future of scientific research and healthcare policy in the country. Unlike Brexit, where the markets initially tanked for several days post-Brexit, the day following the U.S. election, the markets surged, particularly biotech and big pharma stocks. This has been attributed to the removal, or at least lessening, of concern about price controls on pharmaceuticals that appeared to be a major part of the Clinton healthcare reform plan. Certainly, recent tweets pre-election by the Sanders camp suggested similar scrutiny. But the Trump position is less clear. While he has at times mentioned allowing the import of pharmaceuticals from Canada and negotiating prices for Medicare, that has not been a consistent or significant theme of his campaign. And these are mainstream ideas on healthcare that many people could get on board with, or at least have a reasonable disagreement over.
From a science perspective, the more concerning issues of a Trump administration were the fringe statements coming then from the now President-elect. Statements such as global warming is a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese, or his repeating the debunked claim that vaccines cause autism. Some have said that Trump makes outrageous statements for effect and doesn’t really mean them, or that you shouldn’t take him literally. Regardless, these tropes fly in the face of rational, empirical science and are concerning to many who believe in the wonder and power of science and its value to society. Compounding these concerns, the Republican Party retained control of the House and Senate, and a segment of the extreme conservative base of that party has been pushing an anti-science agenda for some time. Will they try to redirect funding of science away from investigators or projects that don’t meet their personal values or mores? On the other hand, Newt Gingrich, one of Trump’s advisors, has been a strong advocate for science, including funding for Alzheimer’s disease. So time will tell what influence this election has on funding for academic and biotech research. One can only hope that the President-elect will populate his administration with well-qualified individuals who believe in rational thought and scientific facts to guide these important healthcare and scientific policy decisions.
All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.
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Patrick C. May, PH.D.
President at ADvantage Neuroscience Consulting LLC
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