Donald Trump
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

You probably already suspected that Donald Trump has no policy chops, but reading his answers to‘s “Top 20 Science, Engineering, Tech, Health & Environmental Issues in 2016” survey will confirm this for you. Hillary Clinton and Jill Stein both provided substantive, thoughtful and literate answers to the questions. Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson was apparently too busy thinking about weed and looking up Basra and Riyadh on his global atlas to submit any responses.

Honestly, I don’t know why Trump bothered. Contrasted to Clinton and Stein, what he wrote looks for all the world like what a disinterested teenager would produce after some prompting from a science-challenged parent. It’s good enough to avoid getting Johnson’s ‘incomplete,’ but worthy of nothing better than a C-minus.

For example, when asked how to assure that America continues to lead the world in science and technology so that we remain at the forefront of innovation, Jill Stein talks about freeing up more money for research and development by reducing Pentagon spending, and she offers her college debt forgiveness and free college plans as ways to educate more people. Clinton promises universal pre-K, strong STEM programming in every school, “debt-free college and support for high-quality apprenticeships and training programs.” She then goes into much more detail:

Both basic and applied research are major drivers of innovation. As President, I will work with Congress to ensure that government funding of research is sufficient to allow for multi-year planning, exploration of emerging research areas, and inflation-adjusted costs. Funding is needed not only for the basic science research agencies and the large science and engineering mission agencies but also for the broader universe of agencies that are increasingly dependent on STEM for their missions.

The innovation payoff comes from the commercialization of research results. The first step is what universities call “technology transfer” and the medical community calls “translation” – demonstrating the use of research results in practice and sharing the knowledge with the business community. The government has a critical role to play at this stage by opening access to and sharing government-funded research results. I will support the development of collaborative consortia that accelerate the creation of new industries while providing valuable feedback to researchers. As part of my plan to create more good-paying jobs, I will also invest in “Make it in America” partnerships that will make America the first choice for manufacturing by harnessing regional strengths, supporting manufacturers up and down the supply chain, and ensuring international competitiveness by improving industrial energy efficiency by one-third within a decade.

But Trump begins by arguing that entrepreneurs can increase consumer choice of already existing products if the government reduces barriers to entry and then argues that high tariffs and trade restrictions will somehow ensure that America remains at the forefront of innovation. Whatever the merits of those policies, I don’t see how they’ll keep America at the forefront of science and technology. On a substantive level, Trump says that we ought to encourage innovation in space exploration (whatever that means) and provide research monies “across the broad landscape of academia.”

This is straight unresponsive pablum, and it’s repeated with his answer on climate change, which is almost unbelievable:

There is still much that needs to be investigated in the field of “climate change.” Perhaps the best use of our limited financial resources should be in dealing with making sure that every person in the world has clean water. Perhaps we should focus on eliminating lingering diseases around the world like malaria. Perhaps we should focus on efforts to increase food production to keep pace with an ever-growing world population. Perhaps we should be focused on developing energy sources and power production that alleviates the need for dependence on fossil fuels. We must decide on how best to proceed so that we can make lives better, safer and more prosperous.

Let’s start with the basics. Trump is a “climate change” hoaxer, which is why those words appear in “scare quotes” in his response.

So, while we should investigate this fake thing people keep talking about, maybe our time and scarce resources would be better spent protecting our water supplies (by abolishing the EPA, for example) or by doing something about diseases that linger. Or, we could grow some food or make some clean energy. At some point in the future, we can decide how to prioritize this stuff, you know, after you elect me your president.

Of course, climate change has a negative impact on the supply and quality of our water, spreads tropical mosquito-borne diseases, and causes droughts and other disruptions to our weather patterns that result in crop loss. Trump’s plan is like studying how to put out the fire in the living room and den without doing anything about the pyromaniac who keeps setting the house aflame.

When asked about the threat arising from mass extinctions and the loss of biodiversity, Trump goes on a diatribe about “agencies filled with unelected officials who have been writing rules and regulations that cater to special interests and that undermine the foundational notion of our government that should be responsive to the people.” His bottom line?

“In a Trump administration, there will be shared governance of our public lands and we will empower state and local governments to protect our wildlife and fisheries.”

After he abolishes the EPA, I guess he won’t have other options than letting the Mississippi legislature protect our Gulf waters and letting the governor of Alaska protect our fisheries. Of course, you couldn’t learn that from reading his 9th Grade-level written response here.

When asked how to protect against cyberattacks and other national security threats while protecting our privacy, Trump really shows his stuff:

The United States government should not spy on its own citizens. That will not happen in a Trump administration. As for protecting the Internet, any attack on the Internet should be considered a provocative act that requires the utmost in protection and, at a minimum, a proportional response that identifies and then eliminates threats to our Internet infrastructure.

I’m pretty sure my precocious six-year old could do better than that. Evidently, English isn’t Trump’s first language. After you get attacked, it’s a little late to do the “utmost in protection” and a proportional response to being attacked is to attack back in a similar manner, not to identify and eliminate the threat. As for “not spying” on American citizens, that would be a very radical policy change necessitating the elimination of the National Security Agency on Day One of the Trump administration. Their monitoring programs sweep up American communications as a matter of course. If Trump wants to curtail existing NSA surveillance, he needs to explain what programs he wants to discontinue or what further judicial oversight, minimization and compartmentalization he wants to see implemented. I haven’t heard Trump suggesting that he’ll immediately overhaul our intelligence gathering activities upon entering office, so unless you believe the U.S. government isn’t spying on its own citizens in the first place, his promise here is a simple lie.

On mental health, Trump says “This entire field of interest must be examined.” On public health, we’ll be “assessing where we need to be as a nation.”

On nuclear power, he’s positively Palinesque. And, remember, this was a take-home test: “We can make nuclear power safer, and its outputs are extraordinary given the investment we should make.” On ocean health, he likewise has no clue: “my administration will work with Congress to establish priorities for our government and how we will allocate our limited fiscal resources.”

I particularly like Trump’s answer to this question:

Q: Agriculture involves a complex balance of land and energy use, worker health and safety, water use and quality, and access to healthy and affordable food, all of which have inputs of objective knowledge from science. How would you manage the US agricultural enterprise to our highest benefit in the most sustainable way?

TRUMP: The implication of your question is that there should be central control of American agriculture by the federal government. That is totally inappropriate. The agriculture industry should be free to seek its best solutions through the market system. That said, the production of food is a national security issue and should receive the attention of the federal government when it comes to providing security for our farmers and ranchers against losses to nature.

I don’t even know where to begin with that response, and neither will any of the Republicans in Congress serving on the Agriculture committees. Perhaps they can cover agricultural concerns with a Homeland Security subcommittee. They can discuss crop insurance and nothing else, apparently.

Next we have Trump’s “the answer is yes, the answer is no” response to a question on how science will inform his regulatory scheme: “Science will inform our decisions on what regulations to keep, rescind or add. A vibrant, robust free market system will regulate the private sector.”

When asked how to enlist science in the effort to combat the opioid catastrophe, here is Trump’s response: “We first should stop the inflow of opioids into the United States. We can do that and we will in the Trump administration.”

He doesn’t promise to limit or curtail the inflow of opioids, but to “stop” it. Maybe he’ll do this with his magic wall. He won’t do it with a scientific wall, however, and he has no ideas to offer on how to “enlist researchers, medical doctors and pharmaceutical companies in addressing this issue.”

It’s remarkable how often Trump responds to these questions by saying he’ll look into it later or he’ll work something out with Congress or he’ll listen to the stakeholders.

Imagine doing a job interview this way where you’re basically saying, “Just give me the job and I’ll tell you what I think sometime in the future.”

Where Trump actually does offer policies in his responses, they’re about trashing the Department of Education or Environmental Protection Agency. He offers rhetorical support for vaccinations, a well-funded space program, and (by implication) some modifications to HIPAA that would make it easier for the mentally ill to get care from their families.

As for whether his administration would politicize science like the Bush administration, Trump assures us: “Science is science and facts are facts. My administration will ensure that there will be total transparency and accountability without political bias.”

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at