Democrats celebrate midterm election results

Science could benefit from Democrat gains in the US elections.Credit: The Asahi Shimbun/Getty

US President Donald Trump has taken a wrecking ball to the climate and environment policies of his predecessor, Barack Obama, over the past two years. To some extent, this is to be expected: any administration has the ability and right to lay out its policies and set a new course. But the Trump administration has also shown a complete disregard for the science and evidence that should underpin policy decisions.

In many cases, Republicans in Congress have been all too happy to sit back and watch. The political dynamic will now change, given that Democrats took control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections last week.

As Nature went to press, officials were still tallying votes in several close races, but the new balance of power is clear. Democrats have so far picked up 32 seats in the House, giving them a slim but significant majority they can use to block the administration’s legislative agenda — just as Republicans did when Obama was president. The Trump administration has often used its executive authorities to advance its agenda independently of Congress, and will surely continue to do so. The difference now is that Democrats will have the power to investigate and raise questions about policies, and to issue subpoenas to compel testimony from reluctant administration officials. This won’t necessarily stop the administration, but it will put a public spotlight on the decision-making process. For anybody who cares about evidence-based policies — including this journal — this is good news.

It’s a different situation in the Senate, where Republicans will pick up at least two seats. Given the current polarization between Democrats and Republicans, the odds of bipartisanship cooperation are slim, but there are some areas in which the two parties might work together. One is the protection of funding for science and science-based agencies: the current Republican-led Congress has already declined Trump’s demands to slash funding for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other such groups, and there will be little appetite to do so next year. (The long-term budget outlook is bleak, so there might still be plenty of cuts to come.) The other point on which the two parties could unite is spending for research infrastructure.

When it comes to science, all eyes are now on changes to the committees that oversee health and environmental agencies — most notably the EPA, a primary target of Trump’s scorn and the main vehicle for his efforts to dismantle rules and regulations that protect the environment and public health but burden industry.

At minimum, expect a change in the language around global warming. The current chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, which regularly weighs in on scientific and technical issues, has repeatedly questioned climate science while launching investigations into alleged wrongdoing by scientists and scientific agencies. But Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson, who is a registered nurse and now the probable future chair of the committee, plans to set the record on climate change straight in hearings next year, starting with an acknowledgement that “it is real”.

As Democrats push back, legal battles will continue to play out in the courts. Republican gains in the Senate will make it even easier for the administration to appoint judges and push the judicial system in a conservative direction. But federal judges have already rejected some of Trump’s decisions for lack of scientific analysis. Last week, a federal district court blocked construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would help to transport crude oil from the Canadian tar sands to the United States; the court ruled that the administration had “simply discarded” the threat of climate change when approving the pipeline.

Democrats will bring their own agendas. But lately, the party has shown more solidarity with science and evidence-based policymaking.

Come January, when the elected candidates assume their positions, science will have a more prominent place at the political table on Capitol Hill. The United States — and indeed, the world — is facing crucial questions about everything from public health and inequality to global warming. Any development that strengthens the voice of evidence, whatever side of the aisle it comes from, is one to support.