What does Biden have in store for science? Expect changes on COVID-19 and climate change, for starters

The United States will see big changes in its main policies on health, climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic among many other areas over the next months, as Joe Biden is expected to take office on 20 January.

While some of these planned changes depend on Congress approval, others will be passed more directly through executive presidential orders.

Image Credits: Flickr Stingrayschuller.

The general trend: reversing damaging action

The four-year presidency of Donald Trump witnessed a dismantling of many environmental regulations and a step back from the US’ position as a leader in climate and health — even science itself. Biden will have the opportunity and the challenge to reverse many of the policies introduced by the Trump administration that scientists and researchers claim were damaging to science.

A democrat who previously served as a vice-president, Biden vowed in the campaign to increase test-and-trace programs to help bring the coronavirus under control alongside his vice-president Kamala Harris, the first woman to be VP in the US.

Some measures will take time, and some will come on his first day at the White House. Biden already anticipated the enactment of a set of executive orders to rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Worth Health Organization (WHO), among other issues, marking a big gap from the policies set by Trump.

“Instead of dog-eat-dog, maybe we will have a modicum of international cooperation, greater adherence to laws and treaties, more civility in politics across the globe, less ‘fake news’, more smiles and less anger,” Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physicist and nuclear-proliferation specialist based in Islamabad, told Nature.

Acting on COVID-19

Biden’s transition team already unveiled the 13 members of what will be his Covid-19 task force once he takes office. The task force will consult with state and local health officials on how to best prevent coronavirus spread, reopen schools and businesses, and address racial disparities in the impact of the pandemic.

Some of the members of the task force include Luciana Borio (former Food and Drug Administration official and biodefense specialist), Rick Bright (former head of the vaccine-development agency BARDA, fired by the Trump administration), and Atul Gawande, surgeon and recently departed CEO of Haven Healthcare, a not-for-profit health body.

“Dealing with the coronavirus pandemic is one of the most important battles our administration will face, and I will be informed by science and by experts,” Biden said in a statement. “The advisory board will help shape my approach to managing the surge in reported infections; ensuring vaccines are safe and effective.”

While President Trump has repeatedly downplayed the COVID-19 pandemic, opposing local efforts and even suggesting cutting down on tests, Biden’s team has committed to increasing test-and-trace programs. The new administration vowed to work side-by-side with state- and local-level officials to implement mandates nationwide and strengthening public-health facilities.

The president-elect has also promised to make decisions grounded in science. This also a sharp contrast with Trump, who sidelined government scientists at public-health agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), shunning scientists and science alike.

Biden announced plans to reopen the lines of communication with other countries and international organizations.

“Joe Biden and Kamala Harris understand that no country can face our current challenges alone, and hopefully will re-engage and help re-form key science-based multilateral institutions,” Marga Gual Soler, an adviser on science diplomacy and policy to the European Union, told Nature.

What to do with face masks will be one of the first tests for Biden. His team already concluded they can’t impose a national mask mandate from the White House, they will need to work with governors and mayors on this end. But the White House could ask for the use of masks on federal property and during interstate transportation. Still, they need to gather support from governors and work on persuasive messaging.

Image Credits: Phil Roeder.

The same applies to testing, another key decision for the new president. Michael Mina, a Harvard epidemiologist and expert in medical testing for viruses, said the new administration should invest in simple, do-it-yourself coronavirus tests that could be distributed across the country to tens of millions of households.

On their transition website, Biden and Harris said they want to double the number of drive-through testing sites and establishing a Pandemic Testing Board, an organizing body that will direct the production and distribution of “tens of millions of tests.” They also want to deploy a US Public Health Corp to protect at-risk populations.

They plan to invest $25 billion in the manufacture and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, hoping to guarantee a free vaccine to every American. Clinical data for any approved vaccine will be publicly released. The new administration also wants to prevent price gouging for approved COVID-19 treatments.

Environment action

Biden will move to restore dozens of environmental safeguards Trump abolished and launch what could be one of the boldest plans on climate change the US has ever seen. While some programs may find resistance from Senate Republicans, the country is on track to make a big change in its environmental policy.

The new administration has plans to develop renewable energy even further, restrict oil and gas drilling on public land, block pipelines that transport fossil fuels across the country and encourage other countries to cut their emissions even further. It’s all part of a large package Biden is getting ready and will see the light in January.

Under Biden, the US will rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change, which has the goal of keeping global temperatures below 2ºC and ideally below 1.5ºC. Biden has promised measures to put the US will on track for net-zero emissions by the middle of the century. Scientists have said this would have big implications for the Paris goals.

Image credits: Diane Greene.

An analysis by Climate Action Tracker, a non-profit organization, said Biden’s climate plan could put the Paris Agreement’s goals “within striking distance”. If fulfilled, the US would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by about 75 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2050, decreasing global warming by 0.1°C by the end of the century.

The US is the world’s second-biggest polluter, behind China. Trump decided to leave the Paris Agreement, which became official one day after the presidential election. The move signaled to the world that the US wouldn’t lead the fight against climate change anymore, with critics saying this undermined other nations’ effort.

Biden said he will not allow fracking on federal land. Fracking is a drilling process in which chemicals are injected into rocks to liberate natural gas and oil and is controversial because of its environmental impact. However, about 90% of it occurs on state or private land, so most operations won’t be affected.

He has also vowed to eliminate carbon emissions from the electric sector by 2035 and spend $2 trillion on investments ranging from weatherizing homes to developing a nationwide network of charging stations for electric vehicles. If he can’t implement it through Senate, he’ll rely on executive orders to advance his agenda.

Candidates are already being considered for the top environmental posts under the new administration. Mary Nichols, who has implemented many of the nation’s most liberal climate policies, is a leading contender to head the EPA. The former secretary of state John F. Kerry may get involved with climate policy.

Andrew Light, a former senior climate official in the Obama administration, said Biden is focused on lowering emissions and increasing jobs. “There will be a big push on electric vehicles, a big push on efficient buildings, both residential and offices, a big push on creating a new kind of civilian conservation corps and doing a lot of nature-based solutions on climate change,” he told the BBC.

It remains to be seen how much of his plans Biden will actually be able to accomplish. However, one thing’s for sure: US science will witness a very different presidency.

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