Immigration, tax cuts and crime loomed large in President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union Address, but technology and innovation went unmentioned tonight during a speech that lasted nearly an hour and a half.
The word “science” was used once, toward the end, when Trump paid tribute to the American people. “They push the bounds of science and discovery,” he said.
There was no mention of space exploration, as there was when Trump addressed Congress last year soon after taking office. The impacts of climate change, artificial intelligence and automation — trends that are already reshaping the nation and the world — went unaddressed. Not a word was spoken about the internet or net (non-)neutrality.
Such omissions didn’t sit well with science policy experts such as Rush Holt, a former Democratic congressman who now serves as the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
“We are frustrated by the disregard for science shown by the U.S. administration,” Holt said in a statement. “Our economy depends on innovation, science and technology, which should be top priorities for any nation’s leader. As other countries increase their attention to and investments in science and technology, the United States will make falling behind a new reality.”
Trump did touch upon a few scientific and technological issues, even if they weren’t always addressed directly. Here are five leading themes
The one mention of a high-tech powerhouse came when Trump praised Apple for its plan to contribute $350 billion to the U.S. economy over the next five years. The plan, announced earlier this month, includes $30 billion in U.S. capital expenditures, a $5 billion fund for innovation in manufacturing, educational and training programs for app developers and the creation of more than 20,000 new jobs.
Trump suggested the Apple investment was sparked by the tax-cut bill. But in a tweet, Sen. Bernie Sanders, a former Democratic presidential candidate, downplayed the investment package as a “major PR move” that took advantage of initiatives the company already had in mind.
Last year, Trump pledged to send Congress a $1 trillion public-private plan for nationwide infrastructure upgrades, but little came of that pledge. Tonight, he upped the ante: “I am calling on the Congress to produce a bill that generates at least $1.5 trillion for the new infrastructure investment we need.”
In a tweet, the AAAS called on Trump “to include the rebuilding of our nation’s scientific research infrastructure, including national labs and research facilities,” in his infrastructure plan.
Health and medicine
Although Republicans weren’t able to kill off the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare), Trump heralded the repeal of the individual mandate for health insurance, which was a provision of the tax-cut bill. He took aim at prescription drug prices, without providing details. “I have directed my administration to make fixing the injustice of high drug prices one of our top priorities, and prices will come down substantially,” he said.
Trump also called for an expansion of “right to try” laws, which give more leeway to terminally ill patients who want to try experimental therapies that have not yet won full approval from the Federal Drug Administration. Oregon put a “right to try” law into place in 2015, and Washington state followed suit last year. The impact of such laws is debatable.
Energy and the environment
Trump said his administration has “ended the war on American energy, and we have ended the war on beautiful, clean coal.” The United States has indeed boosted its fossil-fuel output in recent years — but that’s primarily due to the rise of hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. fracking), resulting in more available reserves of natural gas and shale oil.
Coal output has registered an upward bump after years of decline, but the long-term outlook is still not good: The coal mining industry’s employment figures are going down again. Meanwhile, the rising solar-energy industry is facing new challenges due to Trump’s tariff policy.
The president didn’t use the word “environment” in his speech, but he did speak of reducing regulations. “In our drive to make Washington accountable, we have eliminated more regulations in our first year than any administration in the history of our country,” he said. In a tweet, the Environmental Defense Fund’s Felice Stadler said “that’s not anything to clap about.”
Employment and automation
AI, robotics and automation are likely to pose a huge challenge when it comes to future employment and social stability, and researchers have bemoaned the fact that those trends have gotten so little traction in policy debates. Trump didn’t mention those trends by name, but he did touch upon a couple of strategies that experts say could make a difference: job training and tax incentives for jobs,
“As tax cuts create new jobs, let’s invest in workforce development and let’s invest in job training, which we need so badly,” the president said. “Let’s open great vocational schools so our future workers can learn a craft and realize their full potential.”
The challenge will be to put that sentiment into practice. Jacob Leibenluft, a former Obama administration official who now heads the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said in a tweet that Trump’s budget called for slashing job training grants by 40 percent. And Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, noted that the idea isn’t popular with Republicans.
“Congressional Republicans who have voted consistently against money for job training applaud when Trump calls for it,” Ornstein tweeted.