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Podcast: How will Joe Biden and Kamala Harris steer federal policies that are important to chemists?

Experts tell Stereo Chemistry about the changes they foresee for federal policy on scientific integrity, foreign students, and trade

by Cheryl Hogue
December 15, 2020

Photo of the White House in Washington, DC.
Credit: Luca Perra/Shutterstock
A new US presidential administration is likely to bring many changes for the world of chemistry.
Credit: C&EN

As we prepare for a new US president, many chemists are wondering how the administration change may affect them and their work. Will President-Elect Joe Biden change immigration policies that have reduced the number of foreign students studying at US universities? How might scientific integrity standards in the federal government change under the Biden-Harris team? And will this administration grant the chemical industry’s wish to stop the trade war with China and other US trading partners? In this episode of Stereo Chemistry, C&EN policy reporter Cheryl Hogue joins host Kerri Jansen to help orient listeners to how a Biden administration is likely to impact the world of chemistry.

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The following is the script for the podcast. We have edited the interviews within for length and clarity.

Gretchen Goldman: The Biden campaign did a lot of messaging around their intent to listen to the scientists. And now they’ll have a chance to walk that walk, and we’ll see what that looks like.

Kerri Jansen: That was Gretchen Goldman, the research director in the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. We’ll hear more from her just in a moment.

The US is abuzz as President-Elect Joe Biden’s team transitions into the White House and the Trump administration comes to a close. And many chemists are wondering how this changeover will affect things that they care about, like scientific integrity, the status of international students who want to study in the US, and trade policies. In this episode of Stereo Chemistry, we’re going to call on experts to help us sort out what some of the key impacts may be. I’m your host, Kerri Jansen.

For this episode, I brought aboard C&EN reporter Cheryl Hogue, who covers a wide range of national and international policy issues, to help us get oriented to these potential changes.

Welcome to Stereo Chemistry, Cheryl.

Cheryl Hogue: Hi Kerri! I’m excited to talk about the intersection of science and policy.

Kerri: So obviously, a presidential changeover can bring big changes in a lot of areas. What can you tell us about the likely impact on the world of chemistry?

Cheryl: That’s a big question! I talked to experts in federal science policy, in academic research, and in trade. These are some of the key areas forecasted to see changes in the Biden administration. Let’s start with Gretchen Goldman at the Union of Concerned Scientists. It’s a nonprofit science advocacy group. Gretchen sees the Biden administration having a different relationship with science than the current administration.

Gretchen Goldman: Under Trump, we saw science attacked like never before. There were many ways that science was dismissed or sidelined or suppressed. And they will need to think about how to address those issues, how to build better systems, so that those kinds of things don’t happen in the future, even under an administration that isn’t friendly towards science.

And they’ll need to tackle some of the substantive issues that intersect with science that have been neglected these past 4 years. There’s lots they can do around everything from climate change to environmental justice, and they can play a big role in terms of providing leadership for science across the government, as well as coordinating across agencies.

Cheryl: In addition to issues of environmental justice and the accessibility of federal scientists, which we’ll get to in a moment, one of the big issues Gretchen sees ahead for incoming officials is reinforcing scientific integrity at federal agencies.

Gretchen Goldman: Twenty-eight agencies had scientific integrity policies when we went into the Trump administration. And then we got to really stress test those policies, for better or worse, in the past 4 years. And so during that time, we’ve learned a lot about what worked, what didn’t, where are the gaps, what kinds of structure changes or policy details need to change to ensure that science and scientists are protected, even in an administration that’s hostile to science. And so from all of that work, the Biden-Harris administration can take what we’ve learned and apply that in new ways.

Cheryl: Gretchen also hopes for greater support from the Biden-Harris team for scientists who work for the federal government. That includes the top infectious disease specialist, Anthony Fauci, and scientists who work for the CDC—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gretchen Goldman: Another piece I think they need to address head on quickly is the ability of government scientists to talk to the public and the media. This is something that agencies differ in how much protection they give for scientists to be able to do that.

And we really saw the consequence of that for the public under the Trump administration with the top example, of course, being CDC restrictions and Dr. Fauci being prevented from talking to the media on many occasions. We know that that has direct implications for the public’s ability to get scientific information about their safety. And so we really need to make sure that scientists are given the freedom to talk to the public, to talk to the media, that they do not need approval from political staff in order to do that. And I think that’s something that they can move on quickly, and just get it on paper and in practice, that scientists have that right to communicate.

Cheryl: Many of our listeners know that environmental justice was a major part of the Biden-Harris campaign platform. Gretchen sees room for action in this area across the government.

Gretchen Goldman: There’s a lot they can do, starting with just getting things moving again.

But I also think about a lot of the things that didn’t happen under the Trump administration. And one of those things was working on environmental justice and how to tackle the existing inequities in who is served by science, who is served by federal agencies. The EPA Office of Environmental Justice was very diminished under the Trump administration, both in terms of actual people working there and in terms of the work. We saw that issue deprioritized, and so we’re now looking at a worsened inequity situation.

Cheryl: So Kerri, we do expect to see environmental justice as well as scientific integrity on the Biden administration’s agenda.

Kerri: And I know another aspect of federal science policy has to do with whom the government is looking to for advice on scientific subjects. You’ve reported a lot on a controversial Trump administration move that limited who can serve as an external science adviser to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Cheryl: That’s right. That policy prohibited scientists who received grants from the EPA from becoming agency science advisers. The Trump EPA claimed these scientists had a financial conflict of interest. That move immediately disqualified a huge number of academic scientists, many of whom are top experts, from the EPA’s advisory panels. In their place, EPA boosted representation by industry scientists.

Earlier this year, a federal court vacated the policy. It ruled that the agency may not categorically exclude EPA grant recipients from serving on advisory committees. But the membership of those committees hasn’t changed much since that ruling. Gretchen told me she’d like to see a new lineup on two key panels of external scientific experts that the EPA consults with, the Science Advisory Board and the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee.

Gretchen Goldman: Typically, these committees are longstanding science advice committees. They’re not typically partisan. They are not political appointees. And yet we saw the Trump administration treat them as such. And that’s not what these committees should be. It should be top scientific experts having the breadth, depth, and diversity of expertise that informs the agency.

Kerri: And speaking of academic scientists, universities around the country are concerned about the Trump administration’s efforts to restrict immigration. It’s shutting off the flow of foreign students coming to the US to study.

Cheryl: Yes, that’s right. And that’s what I discussed with Chris Cramer. He’s a theoretical chemist who is the vice president for research at the University of Minnesota.

Chris Cramer: You know, it’s very sobering for higher education this year that foreign enrollments, foreign student enrollment is down 40% in the United States. Now, some of that is attributable to the pandemic, and some of it is attributable to, you know, the Trump administration having been reasonably unwelcoming in a number of its actions, including changes in duration of stay allowed on certain kinds of visas that could make graduate work quite difficult. And there obviously are needs for scientists and technologists in the United States.

Cheryl: Chris thinks it’s important for the US to maintain its global reputation as a high-quality training resource.

Chris Cramer: You know, this is the place, if you are an international student, to really take your skills to the very top level and train. And if you choose to leave the United States afterwards, great, but if you choose to stay here, there will be opportunities, and we’ll benefit from recruiting you on that basis.

The problem is it’s a market. There are good schools in Europe, there are good schools in Canada, Australia, Japan, and keep going. And so if we’re not attracting that kind of talent, it’s going somewhere else. So I am hopeful that the incoming administration—Biden-Harris administration—will roll back some of the more restrictive proposals and interpretations. None of it was lawmaking that came out of Congress. It was really coming out of agencies.

Cheryl: In addition to a pipeline of students, Chris is keeping an eye on the policies that will indicate whether the new administration will foster academic entrepreneurs. You know, the type of academic researchers who want to create commercial products, maybe work with industry, or launch their own companies.

Chris Cramer: I think it will be interesting to see the degree to which the Biden-Harris administration looks for consistent or increased—or maybe tolerates decreased—interactions between higher education and industry.

Increasingly, a lot of faculty are entrepreneurial in their approach. I certainly have seen that over the course of my career. And they have become interested, at least in universities, in what’s the support to do technology commercialization, potentially spin off a company, what have you. And in order to continue to attract those really creative faculty, it would be great to have resources put into place that could help bridge from that very basic discovery in the lab to permit faculty to pursue that, get them a little closer to the marketplace.

Kerri: And I bet a lot of academics in chemistry would be interested in that kind of support. Now, we’ve touched on how the incoming administration is likely to impact academic research and federal policies around scientific integrity. Next, we’ll dig into trade, including chemical exports. That’s after a short break. We’ll be right back.

Gina Vitale: Hey everyone, Gina Vitale here. I’m an assistant editor at C&EN. The C&EN team is working hard to keep you up to date on news related to the COVID-19 pandemic. And we’ve collected all of those stories in one place at There, you’ll find our coverage of vaccine developments and the latest research on how the virus spreads, along with stories about the pandemic’s impact on the chemistry community.

Again, you can find those stories and more at All of that coverage is available for free. If you’d like to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation, you can do so at We’ll post both those links in this episode’s description. And now, back to the show.


Kerri: Cheryl, I did want to make sure that we covered the aspect of trade in 2021 and beyond. A lot of chemists work for the chemical industry. This sector has to have some policy concerns about the presidential transition.

Cheryl: Oh, that’s true. The US chemical industry is one of the country’s largest exporters. That’s why the chemical industry keeps a close eye on trade policies.

The American Chemistry Council, the nation’s largest chemical industry association, is hoping for some changes in trade policy in the Biden-Harris administration. Ed Brzytwa, director for international trade at the American Chemistry Council, laid out the trade group’s goals for me.

Ed Brzytwa: So with the Trump administration, it was very difficult to help them understand why a more free trade–oriented approach was beneficial to manufacturing. They had a mindset where they thought that higher tariffs and more stringent approaches to trade would reinvigorate manufacturing in the United States. And as a matter of fact, a free trade approach actually invigorated manufacturing of chemicals in the United States over the last 10 years.

Cheryl: US chemical exports were about $136 billion in 2019. That’s up 37% from $99.5 billion in 2009. By the way, we had some technical issues in our interview, which is why Ed sounds a little different in this next part.

Ed Brzytwa: For the last 4 years, we’ve experienced a complete sea change in US trade policy, and it hasn’t been helpful to chemical manufacturing in the United States. We went from a relatively open market situation, you know, with the US government trying to expand markets, trying to negotiate new trade agreements, to one where we had a government that was actively trying to restrict trade through a variety of means.

Cheryl: President Trump put tariffs on more than 1,500 chemicals and plastic products from China. Not surprisingly, China slapped retaliatory tariffs on its own imports of US chemicals.

Kerri: And I bet that hurt the chemicals market between China and the US.

Cheryl: Yes. And that exchange accounts for billions of dollars in sales every year. Also, Trump’s trade policies created problems with countries other than China.

Ed Brzytwa: We’re trying to export to the rest of the world, and all of a sudden our exports to China drop precipitously. The EU throws up retaliatory tariffs.

Cheryl: India, Turkey, and for a time Canada imposed tariffs as well. Ed says that, altogether, that equates to roughly $15 billion of retaliatory tariffs. But that’s not all. President Trump also slapped tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum from most countries.

Kerri: How does that affect chemical makers?

Cheryl: Let’s let Ed explain.

Ed Brzytwa: That raised the cost of inputs to building chemical manufacturing plants in the United States.

Kerri: Ah. To make chemicals, you need a factory, and to make a factory, you need steel and aluminum.

Cheryl: Exactly.

Kerri: So what does Ed see as the way out here?

Ed Brzytwa: What we would advocate for the Biden administration to focus on is competitiveness of US industries, using trade policy to bolster our competitiveness, and that means tariff elimination.

It’s high time for those tariffs to be reviewed and to really look at what the impact was on US industry, not just our sector, but all the downstream sectors that rely on chemicals to innovate, to do business, to sell to other markets, to help the entire US economy. We would hope that we return to the traditional US trade policy process instead of trade policy by tweet. So something that’s more predictable, normal, dare I say, even boring.

Kerri: OK! So trade policy experts looking forward to a little less excitement.

Cheryl: Apparently so! Isn’t that a hoot?

Kerri: So when do you think we’ll start seeing changes?

Cheryl: Well, on some things, on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20. Biden has said he’ll take some actions on his first day in office through executive orders to federal agencies. Other changes will take longer, perhaps months or years.

Kerri: And I know that you’ll be reporting on all those changes as they’re implemented. And in fact, I believe the policy group is also working on a special report for early next year on this subject, what we can expect from the Biden administration. Is that right?

Cheryl: Yes, that’s right. We’ll share that in C&EN on Feb. 1. And that report will cover any of those immediate changes that I mentioned.

Kerri: Well, thanks for giving us a preview now.

Cheryl: My pleasure.

Kerri: If you have questions for Cheryl about what we’ve discussed here today, or something you’d like to see covered in a future policy story, let us know about it! You can find Cheryl’s direct email on our website, and you can contact Stereo Chemistry at

This episode was written by Cheryl Hogue and produced by Kerri Jansen—that’s me. It was edited by Jyllian Kemsley and Amanda Yarnell. The music in this episode was “Eminence Landscapes” by Ian Post and “Plain Loafer” by Kevin MacLeod.

Stereo Chemistry will be back in the new year with a new episode. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss it. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts.

Stereo Chemistry is the official podcast of Chemical & Engineering News, which is published by the American Chemical Society. Thanks for listening.


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