The outlook for science under the Biden-Harris administration

Penn Today spoke with experts in various areas of science and environmental policy about what they anticipate will shift now that President Biden has assumed the nation’s leadership.

The top line of the Biden-Harris campaign’s COVID-19 response plan read: “Listen to science.” Going beyond pandemic response, President Biden underscored this intention many times on the campaign trail as well. And just a week into his presidency, he’s already made a flurry of executive actions, many of which touch on aspects of science, including efforts to tamp down the pandemic and take action on the climate crisis.

Some impacts on science and environmental policy are happening quickly, while others will take longer to achieve. To get a preview of what to expect, Penn Today asked members of the University community with expertise in aspects of science policy to weigh in about what the new administration may prioritize. Their responses address space research and exploration, climate change, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, conservation and environmental protection, the energy sector, and basic science research.

Overall impact

Alice Sukhina, Ph.D. candidate in the Microbiology, Virology, and Parasitology program and a chair of Science Communications in the Penn Science Policy and Diplomacy Group

International leaders celebrate the Paris Climate Accord
President Biden made good on his promise to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord on his first day in office. The agreement was originally adopted at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2015. (Image: UNclimatechange)

Over the last four years, almost every science agency experienced budget cuts (10-30%) with the highest cuts to the Department of Energy (DOE) (17%) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (32%). These policies have set scientific research back by years. Thus, the Biden administration should not only restore the funding to pre-2016 levels but also increase funding of science initiatives like DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy that were effectively shut down by the previous administration. While Biden has not yet released a comprehensive statement on funding of basic science, there is a strong expectation of investment into the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and other research agencies.

In addition, Biden’s climate plan outlines some of these needed changes, such as empowering the EPA and DOE and investing heavily into research and development for green infrastructure. It is promising to see this commitment reinforced by Biden swiftly re-entering the Paris Climate Agreement. However, many current policies proposed by the administration will not sufficiently decrease greenhouse gas emissions to meet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) guidelines, and a push for more aggressive climate action is needed.

Some of the policies supported by the administration will significantly impact the science community despite not being directly related to science funding. One of the prominent expected policy changes is the lifting of restrictions on both non-immigrant and immigrant visas and protection of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients. Strict restrictions imposed by previous administration on non-United States citizens’ ability to live and work in the U.S. limited recruitment and retention of talent by research institutions. One of the proposed policies to improve retention of foreign talent would automatically grant green cards to graduates of U.S. doctorate programs, and would greatly increase U.S. competitiveness in the innovation pipeline.

There is also a course for reversal of other major policies by the previous administration that proved to be devastating, such as the disbanding of the Pandemic Response Unit, cutting the U.S. Agency for International Development’s pathogen-tracking program, and decreasing deployment of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention disease detectives. The Biden administration has promised to restore or relaunch all of these with large investments into a COVID-19 relief plan.

Pandemic response

Steven Joffe, Founders Professor of Medical Ethics and Health Policy and interim chair in the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy, chief of the Division of Medical Ethics, and professor of pediatrics in the Perelman School of Medicine

The first thing I think we are going to see is unified, clear, transparent messaging about the pandemic led by scientists and public health experts rather than by politicians. That is going to make a world of difference because it’s going to be seen as more trustworthy than if it were coming from people speaking through a political lens. Also in terms of communication—and Anthony Fauci has said this over the last few days—there will be a willingness to acknowledge uncertainty. Science is inherently uncertain, and we’re dealing with a virus that was unknown 13 months ago. We need to respect the American people enough to say that this is what we know and this is what we don’t know.

I also think it’s clear that although the pandemic has affected every corner of America, it has affected some corners more than others; I’m thinking in particular of minority groups, of Black Americans, of Indigenous Americans, of Latinx Americans. This was, I might say, ignored or at least not dealt with appropriately by the previous administration. This administration includes people with deep expertise in and commitment to confronting inequities, so these issues are going to move front and center. We’re already seeing that.

Rows of COVID-19 vaccine vials
Actions to address the COVID-19 pandemic and improve vaccine rollout have been among the earliest efforts by the Biden administration.

With vaccine distribution under the previous administration, clearly it wasn’t going as well as it could have been going. I don’t want to unnecessarily point fingers; something that is this big and this complicated was always going to be a difficult task. At the same time, it has clearly been chaotic, with the federal government sending doses to the states and telling them to figure out how to get them into people’s arms. I think now we’ll have a federal government that is willing to own responsibility for ensuring that this vaccine rollout occurs more effectively.

Conservation and environmental protection

Cary Coglianese, Edward B. Shils Professor of Law and professor of political science, and director of the Penn Program on Regulation, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School

When it comes to policies affecting public lands, some of the Biden administration’s early decisions have overlapped with other administration priorities: A COVID-fighting mask mandate applies on all federal properties; a climate policy aimed at fossil fuels targets new oil and gas leases on federal land; an order halting new wall segments on the southern border puts a stop to environmentally damaging construction in the desert; and a directive released as part of the new administration’s racial justice initiative demands improved consultation with Native Americans over land management decisions. Beyond these linkages with other policy priorities, the Biden administration will undoubtedly take other steps to review and, when possible, reverse a series of other public lands policy changes adopted over the last four years. Already President Biden has called for a review of oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as well as a review of President Trump’s decisions to eliminate protections at the Bears Ears National Monument, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. We can also expect the new administration to revisit the Trump administration’s changes to federal standards governing environmental impact assessments under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Space research and exploration

Mark Devlin, Reese W. Flower Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Department of Physics and Astronomy, School of Arts & Sciences

Big space research projects are generally planned and executed over many years. I would imagine that the new administration will provide stimulus funding to implement “shovel-ready” programs that will inject jobs and money into the economy quickly. This may result in smaller (on a NASA scale) programs which are already under consideration receiving fast-track funding to get going within months rather than years. This typically benefits university-based research. In the long run one might expect the Biden administration to be more “science friendly” than the outgoing administration, which could result in larger missions being started in the next few years.

Climate change

Daniel Aldana Cohen, assistant professor of sociology, Department of Sociology, School of Arts & Sciences, and director of the Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative (SC)2

President Biden ran on climate change as one of his administration’s top four priorities. And ever since his election, he has continued to elevate climate as a key issue. One reason for continued optimism is that Biden has framed his climate policy as an engine of economic recovery and jobs creation in the midst of the economic crash caused by the Covid pandemic, along with its record spikes in unemployment.

The second reason for optimism is that Biden has interlinked his agendas for decarbonizing the economy with his commitment to racial justice. For instance, Biden has promised that 40% of the investments from his Build Back Better green stimulus would go to disadvantaged communities, i.e., mostly Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities. This spending could include investments in home energy retrofits for low-income households, increased public transit, healthy green retrofits to schools, and remediation of existing pollution, including from fossil fuels.

In my view, some of Biden’s plans are ambitious enough. His pledge to fully decarbonize the electricity sector by 2035 would be a game-changer if implemented. But the question is whether Biden can put enough money behind these initiatives. Meeting his goals will require even more than the $2 trillion in green stimulus that he has promised. And that will require that every single Democrat in the Senate back ambitious legislation, including use of budget reconciliation and/or eliminating the filibuster. Climate justice movements like the Green New Deal Network are pushing for this. Will Biden join them?


Hélène Pilorgé, research associate in carbon capture and storage, Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, and Katherine Gomes, Ph.D. student in chemical engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Science

The new Biden-Harris administration is expected to be much more aggressive in tackling climate change than the previous administration. A sign of the current administration’s willingness to act strongly and quickly is their haste in rejoining the Paris Agreements to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change advises carbon neutrality shortly after the middle of the 21st century. The short timeline and large scale of changes necessary require multiple options to maximize decarbonization. Efficient decarbonization of the U.S. economy would require a portfolio of solutions that aim to reduce emissions by low-carbon renewable energy sources, avoid emissions by point-source carbon capture, and remove emissions by direct air capture, which would address past emissions as well.

The new administration must consider a diverse portfolio of technologies as the specificity of each sector as well as local constraints on space and resources might reduce decarbonization options, including the possibility of developing or accessing low-carbon energy resources, mining mineral resources, and accessing water resources.

The transition toward low-carbon renewable energies has already begun with closures of coal-fired power plants and expanded use of energy sources such as solar, wind, and hydroelectric. Although mostly small scale today, geothermal could be more extensively developed in particular in the western U.S. where resources are abundant. Biomass is another interesting source of energy, harvested in a sustainable way to avoid negative feedback and protect existing ecosystems. Developing the renewable energy sector is an important part of the solution to reduce carbon emissions and is also a unique opportunity to create manufacturing jobs in the U.S.

Keeping a careful inventory of greenhouse gas emissions released and captured nationwide is necessary to track progress over time and to expose sectors that need to be targeted for continuing efforts.