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The Science Of Trump: Energy, Space And Military Tech

Hillary Clinton says she believes in science. Donald Trump isn’t a “great believer” in human-caused climate change. But that doesn’t mean that Trump hates all science or that Clinton would always make the same choices as a lab technician. Truth is, “science” is more than one thing and every politician has sciences they prioritize and others they are happy to see stagnate.

We wanted to know what fields of science the candidates were prioritizing and what science-related policy questions were most likely to come up in their respective administrations. So FiveThirtyEight science writer Maggie Koerth-Baker and her colleague Dhrumil Mehta got transcript data from all the C-SPAN videos since January 2015 in which Trump or Clinton were tagged as a speaker. (There were 133 files for Clinton and 121 for Trump.) They searched all the files for science-related keywords, such as “advance,” “cutting-edge” and, well, “science.” And patterns began to emerge.

This chat is focused on the topics that came up most often for Trump: military technologies, energy and space. (We’ll be doing a Clinton version later.) They also show up in the answers he gave to Science Debate, an organization that asks candidates about a range of science-related policy issues. We’ve brought together a roundtable of experts in those fields to talk about the policy questions they see as most important, how their fields interact, and the ways that science and politics shape each other — and to discuss a couple of reader questions we solicited on Twitter.

Our participants are: Jill Stuart, space law researcher at the London School of Economics and editor in chief of the journal Space Policy; Deborah Stine, associate director for policy outreach at the Scott Institute for Energy Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University; Cynthia Dion-Schwarz, senior scientist at the Rand Corp. and a specialist in information technology and cybersecurity; and Cynthia Cook, director of the Acquisition and Technology Policy Center at the RAND National Defense Research Institute.

(The chat below has been lightly edited.)

Maggie: I want to start this off by asking you all what you think connects your fields. Why might one presidential candidate prioritize military technology, energy production/independence, and space? Is there an obvious thread pulling them all together?

Jill: To my mind, yes. Aside from the obvious scientific and technology overlaps (for example, space technology can be used as a military force-multiplier), science is a political issue for the candidates. Scientific prowess, as well as how technology plays into American issues of security, has political significance that will resonate with voters.

Deborah: I agree with Jill. They also influence what people care about — jobs and the economy, security and the environment.

Jill: There’s also an issue of pride here with all of them too, which I think Trump in particular is tapping into with regards to the narrative of “making America great again.”

Cynthia Cook: All three areas are ones where innovation plays an important and obvious role — where new technologies have allowed for exciting new capabilities and efficiencies. These are also areas where public policy has an important role to play in shaping the direction of the relevant industries.

Maggie: I think that point of pride is an interesting one, for sure. And it made me think a little about another question that came up for me today while I was reading over Trump’s answers to the Science Debate questions.

He talks a lot about prioritization: the idea that you have a limited pool of money so you have to decide what scientific research you’re going to spend it on, and what is maybe less important. And that made me think about unexpected entanglements between different fields. So, for instance, his response to Science Debate’s question about ocean research kind of suggested, in so many words, that that’s not a priority for him. But if you aren’t doing much ocean research, does that have an impact on energy exploration or military preparedness? Will Trump be able to cut funding for sciences he doesn’t care about without affecting the sciences that matter to him?

Jill: From what I can tell, on space at least, he seems to be unclear where he would allocate funds.

Maggie: That’s true. Even the sciences he has spoken in support of, it’s not really clear what his plans are. Trump has talked about the importance of space exploration and research, and the same themes were echoed in his Science Debate answers. At a speech in Madison, Alabama, on Feb. 28, he promised to not cut space funding. But he has not detailed how he wants to see that funding used.

Cynthia Dion-Schwarz: I’m most familiar with space and military technologies, both of which have very serious problems with respect to U.S. leadership. Space is increasingly becoming populated by a variety of technologies from other nations, and that poses governance challenges as countries with differing views about the use of space become effective there. As for military technologies, the U.S. has long depended on its leadership in technologies to enforce its military leadership, yet technologies (especially IT technologies) are globalized now, which means that we can no longer count on technologies being invented here and employed by our military first.

Jill: I’d be curious, from the other panelists, to what degree commercialization and private industry is an issue for your fields? For space, commercialization is an area that is developing, and that fits well into Trump’s pro-business stance.

Maggie: I’m curious about that, as well, Jill.

Deborah: Energy has always been primarily in the private sector. That is probably one of its biggest challenges in terms of innovation. The Department of Energy can fund innovation and university researchers can develop, but there is not necessarily an incentive for industry to implement.

In May, Mr. Trump gave a speech titled “An America First Energy Plan.” It is clear based on that speech that he is focused on energy and the economy.

Maggie: That’s definitely true. Energy is probably the science where he has the most clear policy proposals. For instance, in his speeches, he’s called repeatedly for America to be energy independent by 2024. And while he has given shout-outs to solar power and nuclear power, it’s also pretty clear that he’s most interested in fully exploiting America’s reserves of oil, gas and coal.

Jill: Debbie, that speech is interesting. It seems he has a pretty clear position and agenda on energy, then? (Not so, in my opinion, with space …)

Deborah: Some aspects are unclear. For example, he says, “We will use the revenues from energy production to rebuild our roads, schools, bridges and public infrastructure.” But where will the revenues come from? I can’t imagine him increasing the current federal gasoline tax; can you? And the tax is already used for highways (though it is not enough).

He’s giving a speech in Pittsburgh on Thursday where he is supposed to give more specifics.

Maggie: Debbie, my understanding from reading the C-SPAN transcripts is that he believes we can make profits by exporting energy resources if we start fully exploiting our gas, oil and coal reserves. Do we export much energy now?

Deborah: Energy export is limited today because of the lack of facilities. A few years ago, for example, we were importing natural gas. Now we want to export it. But it takes a while to build the pipelines from here in southwestern Pennsylvania to the coast, and then to have the docks and ships to export.

And energy export may not be a good thing. If we export natural gas, then we will pay higher prices in the U.S. But the petrochemical industry needs low-cost natural gas (as do other energy-intensive industries) to stay in the U.S.

Maggie: So energy export is another infrastructure issue, then?

Deborah: Yes, infrastructure is key. We are already in the process of greatly expanding the pipeline network in the Northeast. That is not easy, and you are already seeing protests.

Jill: What sparks the protests? Environmental concerns?

Maggie: In the case of North Dakota, where there is a large protest blocking construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, it’s a combination of concerns, ranging from people worried about contamination of drinking water to people seeing the construction as a violation of treaties the federal government made with the local Sioux tribes. It’s interesting that energy export is fundamentally dependent on more pipelines and would probably result in more protests like what we see right now.

Deborah: If you think about it, here in the mid-Atlantic region, we used to get our natural gas from Texas. Now they talk about reversing the pipeline so the natural gas we generate here in Pennsylvania can go down to Texas, where there are more chemical processing facilities.

Maggie: Here’s another question that kind of broadly affects all of you: Trump has talked about putting a moratorium on regulations and going back through all the existing regulations to figure out which ones to keep and which to throw out. Which sounds insanely daunting. But I’m curious whether any of you have regulations that affect your fields that you, immediately, would like to see done away with? Or ones you’d like to keep?

Jill: The key one for space at the moment is the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015. It states that U.S. citizens may engage in the commercial exploration and exploitation of “space resources,” including water and minerals. That is, it would allow mining resources from celestial bodies. It is controversial because the U.S. is a signatory of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which says that a state cannot assert sovereignty in outer space (it is neutral territory). So does this legislation violate that treaty? The act itself states that the United States does not “assert sovereignty or sovereign or exclusive rights or jurisdiction over, or the ownership of, any celestial body.” But it’s not clear how this differs from mining resources.

Deborah: The challenge is that some regulations were written 100 years ago and are still in place today. I don’t see it as much a problem with new regulations as that we have old regulations in place that may not make sense given ever-changing technology.

The biggest challenge in my world are regulations that don’t take into account current technology. For example, a spinoff company from my university uses robots for testing water (as required by regulations for some energy facilities, for example). The regulations, however, are designed for humans to collect water, not robots. So this is a challenge. You can see this now in the case of autonomous cars. Some states have said no to self-driving cars, and others are supportive. A mix of regulations will not help this industry grow, even though it has great potential to save energy and lives.

Maggie: I remember reading how driverless car regulations often ban you from sleeping or reading while the car drives, which seems to defeat the purpose (or it’s possible that my purpose for driverless cars is lazier than most people’s).

Jill: Ha — that’s precisely what I would do in a self-driving car: sleep!

Maggie: I had a question for the Cynthias that seemed to be really important to Trump’s political rhetoric. Many of his speeches have talked about America falling behind in military technology. He says we aren’t investing enough in making our military the best. But I’m also remembering all the times I’ve seen graphic representations of the amount of money we spend on the military already and how that outpaces every other country. I’m curious about how both those things can be true.

Cynthia Cook: The United States has without doubt the most powerful and capable military in the world, with the best trained and most effective soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen. At the high end, the ability of our armed forces to prevail in a traditional conflict is without question. The concern with military technology and budgets has three factors: (a) warfare has become much more asymmetric, meaning that adversaries are adopting approaches such as cyber- and information warfare, for which our current technologies don’t offer an easy counter; (b) the focus that we’ve had in the past decade against the terrorist threat has created challenges for recapitalization; and (c) budget constraints now have implications for the future, because we have less to invest in emerging areas.

Deborah: This is certainly true for research, where we have seen declining investments in R&D.

Cynthia Dion-Schwarz: I would add to that I think that the more optimistic narrative is recognizing that currently, we dominate in military technology, but that is because we are reaping the rewards of decades of investments to develop the best military technology in the world. With military budget cuts, the more pessimistic narrative is warning that we will be much less prepared to meet the emerging threats in the future. Whether that’s a real problem, of course, depends on how geopolitical events play out.

Maggie: So it’s more of an issue of how we pivot to a different kind of war?

Cynthia Cook: It’s not an issue of a complete pivot to a different kind of war. The U.S. still needs to be ready to engage “near-peer” adversaries in major combat operations and to deal with other serious concerns like a nuclear North Korea. But new technologies have also created new ways for adversaries to threaten us. We need “technologies against terror.” Cyber is a huge challenge as well, and an area where I learn from my excellent colleague, Cynthia Dion-Schwarz.

Jill: Trump has also mentioned NASA “losing” in space. It’s useful for his narrative to imply that the U.S. is falling behind, in my opinion.

Maggie: Jill, do you disagree that we’re falling behind in space? A reader, Brian Jones, asked on Twitter about the fact that NASA currently relies on the Russian space program to get humans into orbit now, for instance.

Jill: I personally don’t think we’re falling behind, no.

It is perhaps unsettling to be dependent upon the Russians for manned access to the International Space Station, but I think it’s wrong (though natural) to focus solely on manned endeavors (and the lack of manned capabilities is, I believe, temporary anyway). I would like to see a clear agenda for big space projects from the next president, but in talking about “falling behind,” we overlook the many other successful, inspiring and fruitful projects that the U.S. continues to pursue that may however not be as “sexy” as manned flight — such as the important satellite arrays that undertake Earth and climate observation; robotic Mars missions; deep space probes; continued commitment to (through 2024, at present) the International Space Station; tracking of potentially hazardous comets and asteroids.

It’s also worth noting that at other times, Trump seems to feel that NASA is “wonderful,” in perhaps contradiction to his other comments about it being “like a third-world nation.”

Deborah: One item I wanted to mention about the U.S. military and energy was a report that was released a few days ago, which said that stresses resulting from climate can increase the likelihood of global conflict, mass migration and the creation of additional ungoverned spaces. Yet you don’t see much concern from Mr. Trump about climate change. How will he be able to resolve conflicting positions — when he says he cares about security but at the same time he’s unwilling to listen to military leaders that talk about the security dangers from climate change that are caused by our use of energy?

Maggie: That kind of goes back to my earlier question about prioritization, Deborah. If Trump does cut funding for climate research, that’s likely to have an impact on his goals for military preparedness. I know from interviews I’ve done with people in the Air Force and Navy that they’re really concerned about this and are making changes in energy use because of it. How much policy pull does the Defense Department have when it comes to changing or affecting climate policy, though? Is that a place where politicians listen to generals?

Deborah: The department can have a tremendous impact on demonstrating the use of energy-efficient technologies — this can save money and save lives now devoted to the transportation of fuel. You can see the inroads here, on this chart from the Energy Information Administration:


So we can only hope the department has pull on climate policy, but they can certainly do a lot on energy without any policy. It’s a big part of their budget.

Cynthia Cook: I like that chart. Defense may be the single largest user of energy — but it is still a tiny percentage of the total market, which is driven by the old-fashioned forces of supply and demand. The government can encourage investments in alternatives sources of energy and create incentives for their use, but it is a commercial marketplace.

Maggie: Cynthia, what policies are most pressing in terms of preparing for cyberwarfare? Trump has talked about it both as a serious threat that we aren’t prepared for and as something that could become an American tech speciality, if we invest in it.

Cynthia Dion-Schwarz: There is an evolving understanding and continued debate on the idea of “cyberwar.” This debate reflects both the peculiar nature of cyberwarfare, as well as real intellectual problems associated with virtual space.

Cyber is peculiar because it doesn’t directly kill people or destroy property. Cyberattacks can be used to make property destroy itself (for instance, Stuxnet caused centrifuges to fail at a high rate through manipulation of the control systems) or in theory indirectly cause deaths due to cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, akin to deaths caused by power outages, for instance. International law researchers have articulated in the “Tallinn Manual” that under the current laws of armed conflict, certain kinds of cyberattacks — i.e., those that cause extreme damage to property or people — could cross the threshold of international armed conflict. Certainly, the U.S. is of the view that operations in cyberspace must comply with international law — no targeting civilians, for instance, and responses must be proportionate.

The big problem is one of how we regard data and virtual activities. Is data property, so that the mass destruction or theft of data, or the manipulation of cyberspace to support political outcomes, is an act of war? In the U.S., so far the answer has been no, but acts are treated on a case-by-case basis. Certainly China and Russia think that both cyberspace and cyberwar are different from traditional warfare and require a new international framework governing its use. The U.S. so far respectfully disagrees. As a result, no one really agrees on where to draw lines, which in turn makes international cybernorms difficult to establish. I think progress is being made both in policy and intellectual understanding of the issues, but there’s still a lot of work to do.

I think for the foreseeable future, we’re going to see cyberwar as a new dimension of traditional warfare, conducted as a part of armed conflict and not solely in cyberspace. There, its importance and impact will grow as cybertechnology evolves.

Maggie: How are energy sectors and cyberwarfare sectors coordinating when it comes to the security of our electric grid? That seems like a place where Trump’s interest in defense and his interest in energy security come together.

Deborah: The electric grid being attacked is certainly a concern. I’m not sure how much coordination is going on, but I can say in the energy sector there is a focus on microgrids. Microgrids offer the ability to power essential services like police, fire, hospitals, etc. We’ve seen the importance of these in hurricanes and Superstorm Sandy.

Cynthia Cook: Energy resilience is key.

Deborah: One advantage for those who install solar panels on their homes is the ability to have power in times of trouble.

Maggie: Which seems like another example of how heavily prioritizing some sciences at the expense of others could end up being counterproductive. If Trump’s energy investment policy centers on coal, oil and gas as much as it seems it would from his speeches, then stuff like community solar and microgrids might stagnate.

Cynthia Dion-Schwarz: President Obama has designated the electric grid as “critical infrastructure,” meaning that the U.S. will take on focused efforts to try to protect it from cyberattack, including investing in technologies, encouraging the development of standards, information threat sharing, etc. The Department of Homeland Security, the Commerce Department and the National Institute of Standards and Technology are really the federal leads for assisting. But there are conundrums. For instance, a cyberattack on the electrical grid may be indistinguishable from other kinds of failures — squirrels in the transformers, e.g. — so it may be days or weeks before you even know a failure is a result of a cyberattack. Also, the actions by the private power companies are not clear — do they call the governor? And does the governor call FEMA? What assistance should they request? There are many issues still to be worked out — but at least this is a start.

Maggie: This has been a really great conversation — I have one final question. Some of the reader questions I got expressed doubt that Trump would listen to experts in crafting policy. Obviously, that’s a partisan opinion issue that you all can’t really comment on. But could you offer some perspective on what the process of advising politicians is like, in general? Do you feel like they listen? What do you do when they don’t?

Cynthia Cook: We occasionally are asked to go over to Capitol Hill to inform staffers or members of Congress on a variety of military issues, including those on topics we’ve discussed today. Congress integrates our analysis with a range of other interests and concerns and makes its decisions based on what members see is the bigger picture.

Maggie: Is that polite code for “we don’t expect them to do what we say”?

Cynthia Cook: I’m not that cynical!

Deborah: Perhaps I’m biased, but I’ve found over the years that thoughtful politicians want as much analysis and discussion among experts as possible before making a decision. If they don’t, there is little you can do other than providing the analysis you developed to outside sources, sometimes under the table.

We’re practical policy analysts in the end and know that we won’t always be listened to. In the end, we wait and see what happens. We’re often around longer than the politicians and provide that institutional memory on the issue at hand.

Maggie: “We’re often around longer than the politicians” — this feels like it should be followed by evil laughter. Thanks to all for a great conversation.

Dhrumil Mehta was a database journalist at FiveThirtyEight.

Maggie Koerth was a senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.