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AAAS chief predicts “tough and uncertain times” for US science funding

physicist and former Congressman Rush Holt is the current president of the American Association for the Advvancement of Science at the AAAS annual meeting in Boston 17 February 2017

Not for me – president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Rush Holt says there’s “no chance” of him becoming Donald Trump’s science adviser but admits it would be hard to turn down if offered.

By Matin Durrani in Boston, US

Rush Holt is that rarity: a physicist who’s also been a politician, having spent 16 years as Democratic Congressman for New Jersey’s 12th congressional district from 1999 to 2015. Those two attributes make him well placed in his current role as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which is holding its annual meeting here in Boston.

So when I sat down with Holt yesterday, our conversation naturally focused on the impact on science of Donald Trump’s election as US president. The bouffant-haired, former businessman and reality-TV star may have so far said little about the subject, but Holt believes that “tough and uncertain times” lie ahead for scientific funding. “I think we will be on a very austere budget for all non-defence discretionary activity,” he warns.

Although Trump has so far ignored a request from the AAAS for a meeting to discuss science, I asked Holt what he would say if he and the US president were alone in a room together. “I would like him to get a science adviser for himself and for each of his agencies,” says Holt. “I would also try to dispel the idea, which I believe he has, that a science adviser is simply a ‘plant’ of the science community who is there to represent the interests of people who wear lab coats – rather than understanding that that person is his best defence against erroneous policies that just won’t hold up under the tests of reality.”

But Holt says he would be “surprised” if Will Happer – the Princeton University physicist who’s met Trump and has been tipped as his science adviser – takes the job. “He is a friend and a very smart person. I haven’t talked to him about [the job] but he is so far from the mainstream on climate change, which is one of the big issues in science today, that it would be difficult for Will.”

So would Holt take the job? Despite saying there is “no chance” of being selected for the post, Holt says most people would find it “hard to turn down” if Trump came calling. “But I left Congress two years ago and got this terrific job heading up the AAAS. It’s important and satisfying work and because of my political record in Congress this president wouldn’t pick me as his right-hand man.”

Holt’s tack will be to persuade Trump that his plans to spend a lot on infrastructure should include spending on scientific infrasructure. “Maybe this president can be convinced that infrastructure also includes laboratories, equipment and grad students.”

* The full interview with Holt will appear in a forthcoming issue of Physics World.

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