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Global Health

Biden-Harris priorities include areas important to chemists and chemistry

Revised policies planned to control the coronavirus, recover the economy, address inequity, and combat climate change

by Cheryl Hogue , Michael McCoy , Megha Satyanarayana , Andrea Widener
November 9, 2020

 

20201109lnp4-victory.jpg
Credit: Pat Benic/UPI/Newscom
President-Elect Joe Biden (right) and Vice President Elect Kamala Harris each mentioned science in election victory speeches Nov. 7.

After months of rancorous campaigning and several days of counting ballots, former vice president Joe Biden emerged on Nov. 7 as the winner of the 2020 US presidential election.

Biden and Vice President Elect Kamala Harris will take office in the middle of a pandemic, with the possibility of an economic stimulus package still up in the air. This stimulus, decided by Congress and approved by the president, could have considerable ramifications for higher education, research funding, drug companies, and chemical manufacturers.

Biden has spoken of reversing several of President Donald J. Trump's executive orders, which could quickly change immigration and climate policy, as well as trade agreements. He plans for the US to rejoin the Paris climate change accord, and it appears he would restore the US's presence in the World Health Organization. Rejoining the WHO is part of Biden and Harris's seven-point plan to quell the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed nearly 240,000 and sickened more than 10 million people in the US. Biden will face higher hurdles where his agenda requires compromise with a possibly divided Congress.

Biden and Harris both mentioned science in Nov. 7 victory speeches. "You chose hope, unity, decency, science, and, yes, truth," Harris said before introducing Biden.

Biden followed with, "Americans have called upon us to marshal the forces of decency, the forces of fairness, to marshal the forces of science and the forces of hope in the great battles of our time."

These are the areas Biden and Harris have laid out as priorities for when they take office on Jan. 20, 2021. Biden is expected to begin announcing nominations for cabinet positions in late November.

COVID-19

Biden announced Nov. 9 the formation of a task force to help guide his administration's response to the pandemic. It is led by David Kessler, who led the US Food and Drug Administration for much of the 1990's under Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton; Marcella Nunez-Smith, a Yale University physician who is an expert on health disparities; and Vivek Murthy, a former surgeon general under Barack Obama. The stated goals of the task force are "to determine the public health and economic steps necessary to get the virus under control, to deliver immediate relief to working families, to address ongoing racial and ethnic disparities, and to reopen our schools and businesses safely and effectively," according to a statement.

In addition to the task force, the Biden-Harris plan also calls for a $25 billion investment in the infrastructure required to make and ensure equitable distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine. The ability to manufacture millions of doses of a vaccine and the question of who would get it first have been major public health concerns as several companies push through clinical trials with vaccine candidates.

Biden has also stressed that the process by which a vaccine will be approved should be free of politics and that safety and efficacy data should be open to the public, and he has spoken several times of ensuring that COVID-19 treatments be fairly priced.

The plan would also restore the infectious disease surveillance program called PREDICT, whose funding ran out this year. Tracey Goldstein, a University of California, Davis, researcher who is one of the leaders of PREDICT, tells C&EN that the program's work helps identify viruses in animals all over the world that could jump the species barrier, as SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen that causes COVID-19, appears to have done.

Economic recovery

Chemical companies won't be keen on Biden's plan to reverse some of Trump's tax cuts for corporations, but they should find much else to like in the president-elect's economic recovery plan.

One of the plan's initiatives is investment in modern infrastructure and clean energy. Most major chemical companies produce polymers used in construction, and many firms provide materials needed to build solar panels, wind turbines, hydrogen plants, and batteries, as well as extend the life of nuclear power plants. Likewise, a second initiative, to build local supply chains, should benefit US pharmaceutical companies that rely heavily on raw materials from China and other overseas suppliers.

The US industry will be happy to put Trump's trade policies behind it. In a statement, the American Chemistry Council, a trade association, urges Biden to reverse the steep tariffs that the Trump administration put on many overseas goods.

The statement also seeks to remind the Biden team of a fundamental economic truth: maintaining the industry's prodigious exports and manufacturing investment will require continued access to low-cost natural gas extracted from shale.

Equity

During the election, Biden vowed to make combating systemic racism and economic inequality a cornerstone of his presidency, and it is a major focus of his transition.

For chemistry, that could mean more support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which send a far greater percentage of Black scientists on to graduate school than other schools. (Harris is a graduate of an HBCU, Howard University.)

Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, says in a statement that they "deeply appreciate the president-elect's commitment to additional support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority Serving Institutions to help under-resourced institutions deliver on their critical mission of creating a more just and equitable society."

Biden's proposals include addressing environmental justice, such as by increasing investment in Black and Brown communities that are underdeveloped and more likely to be exposed to hazards like polluted air and water. He says those communities should get 40% of all clean energy investment.

More support for small businesses owned by people of color is also a key platform for Biden. He proposes a series of focused public and private investment and supports for small businesses.

Another area where Biden has vowed to make major changes is immigration, which has been a major concern for scientists. Biden can immediately reverse bans on people from predominantly Muslim countries, restore rights for immigrants who were brought to the country as children, and make it easier for people who want to come to the US legally to do so, including on work and student visas used by scientists. Biden has vowed to push through comprehensive immigration reform, something that has been stalled in Congress for decades.

Climate change

Combating climate change is a key priority for the incoming administration. This means new federal policies that will create opportunities for chemists and materials scientists in the effort to adapt to and stave off further global warming.

Biden is calling for innovations that need chemistry know-how. In addition to promoting clean energy, he seeks new technologies to strip carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, a US power sector that emits no carbon dioxide by 2035, and greater energy efficiency of buildings and appliances.

"We know what the goal is now," says Keith E. Peterman, a retired chemistry professor at York University of Pennsylvania who takes chemistry students to UN climate change negotiations. "Chemists will come in and use their ingenuity."

The Biotechnology Industry Organization sees opportunity too. In a statement, Michelle McMurry-Heath, CEO of the group, says, "We look forward to working with all elected officials and hope to have an open dialogue on how we can best use biotech to reduce greenhouse gas [emissions] for our planet."

Correction

This story was updated on Nov. 11, 2020, to say that funding for the infectious disease surveillance program called PREDICT ran out this year. The story previously said that the program was defunded by President Donald J. Trump.

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