USA: Team Biden starts

The term of office of the 46th US President, Joe Biden, who was elected in November, officially begins on Wednesday. With the change in power in the White House, there are high expectations for a change in education and science. While the previous President Donald Trump made a name for himself with resolutions and proposals that harm local and international research, many scientific representatives at home and abroad are expecting an improvement in the educational policy situation under Biden.

How quickly the effects will show, however, is unclear. The DAAD President, Professor Joybrato Mukherjee, sees a heavy mortgage for Biden. “His focus will inevitably be on the domestic political crisis and the Corona crisis”. As a “president for science” he will therefore hardly be able to appear at first. “Biden first has to break through people’s closed bubbles and bring them back into a shared reality,” Mukherjee told Research & Teaching. The desire for evidence-based politics is great in the country characterized by “fake news”, however, Biden’s announced plans are very promising. “Evidence-based politics alone will not stop the political controversy,” said Jeff Rathke, president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS) in Washington. “The storm on the Capitol is just the tip of many precedents over the past four years in which Trump has divided the country.” Biden will mainly be busy getting the heated domestic political situation under control. “We should therefore avoid disappointment in the face of excessive expectations of Biden’s science policy.”

“We should avoid disappointment in the face of excessive expectations of Biden’s science policy.” Jeff Rathke (AICGS)

In the USA, the change begins with new staff: Trump’s education minister Betsy DeVos had surprisingly resigned almost two weeks before the handover because of the attack by his supporters on the Capitol in Washington. According to media reports, DeVos hardly dealt with the universities during her tenure. The former Connecticut teacher and education officer, Miguel Cardona, will follow in her position. Biden announced that Cardona wanted to fight as education minister for a “better, fairer and more successful education system”. According to media reports, his focus is on lifelong learning, equal opportunities and easier access to education. Financial hurdles in access to education should also be removed at the state universities. Cardona’s plans match those of US President Biden. He had already announced that tuition fees would decrease under his presidency. In order for this to succeed, Cardona needs a strong team at his side, as observers reported, since he has no practical experience in university politics.

In his campaign, Biden announced that he would be cutting tuition fees for four years of study at a public college for families who earn less than $ 125,000 a year. At the community colleges, the two-year course should be free for everyone. In addition, millions of people should not have to repay their student loan debts, or only partially. Immediately after taking office, Biden will extend a payment pause that has existed since August, which the Trump administration had introduced due to corona-related high unemployment. Biden intends to double the maximum funding for students in need who are supported through the Pell Grant program. According to media reports, the current rate from the state education subsidy program of the Ministry of Education is too low to cover the living costs and tuition fees of the students.

The approximately 450,000 students who illegally immigrated to the USA as children can also hope. So far, the so-called “Dreamer” have only been partially and temporarily protected from deportation by the DACA program introduced by Obama. Trump’s repeated attempts to abolish or restrict the program failed in court. Biden’s government wants to find a permanent solution to the controversial program.

Relaxation in international exchange

It will probably become easier for students and scientists from abroad to come to the USA in the future, provided the corona pandemic allows it. Trump had tightened the entry and visa rules over the past four years. Entry restrictions currently still apply to people from certain predominantly Muslim countries, and doctoral candidates may stay in the country for a maximum of four years. That scares many. The number of international students at US universities has been falling for years, also because of Trump’s measures, and in the fall it also fell sharply due to Corona. According to media reports, Biden wants to loosen the travel bans by decree immediately after taking office. He wants to make long-term stays for scientists easier with so-called “green cards”.

DAAD President Mukherjee considers the scientific exchange to be an indicator of international relations. He is hopeful that the slump in the number of applicants for DAAD scholarships with the USA will recover since the election results. “The American universities are extremely attractive to scholars from abroad, regardless of the current government in the country. Under Biden, however, the USA has become emotionally attractive again,” says Mukherjee. With the tailwind of a government with an affinity for science, it is easier for the DAAD to rebuild the trust that has been destroyed through academic exchange. The US is interested in reviving relations with Europe and Germany in particular, said AICGS President Jeff Rathke. However, proposals for international exchange and cooperation should also be brought to Washington from outside. “We shouldn’t wait for Biden’s initiative, we should take action ourselves.” International relations could only be strengthened again through a leap of faith and mutual commitment. Rathke also warned: “Some of the visa rules for specialists may not be withdrawn immediately. Biden will examine exactly what is good for the USA and what is not.”

“Under Biden, the US has become emotionally attractive again.” Prof. Joybrato Mukherjee (DAAD)

According to Biden, the education and research expenditures are to be increased considerably and distributed “fairly” to all universities in the state. So far, for example, historically African American universities have been enormously disadvantaged in terms of spending, according to media reports. Another plan by Biden is to distribute billions in federal funds to universities based on the number of low-income students they have. This should ensure that these students finish their studies. So far they would drop out of their studies significantly more often than students with higher incomes.

“Low social mobility is perhaps the biggest problem in the US. Plans for more equality in education such as diversity and affordability are important goals of many US universities,” said Professor Christian Martin, holder of the Max Weber Chair for Germany and European Studies at New York University, versus Research & Teaching. However, there are limits to the implementation: education has to be paid for from somewhere, tuition fees are not entirely replaceable. “The fact that universities are elitist places with a sometimes uninviting external effect is necessary and correct in view of their high educational standards and specialized tasks.” The prevailing skepticism of the elite, which is spreading to institutions such as universities, must be countered by the scientific system with better communication of the “treasure” of scientific discourse and scientific method.

The corona pandemic is putting additional pressure on universities in the USA. Biden has announced immediate help for this after taking office. On Thursday, the old Ministry of Education released $ 21.2 billion for universities, and on the same day Biden announced a further $ 35 billion for universities from his planned Corona aid package. According to media reports, scientific representatives had demanded 120 billion dollars. The falling number of students and the resulting no longer tuition fees mean a financial hole for the universities. The Corona aid packages are intended to relieve the universities and, above all, enable them to have hygiene plans and distance lessons. Cuts in higher education are to be prevented or at least mitigated. Financial emergency aid for students is also planned.

“Team Biden” against climate change and corona

But Biden doesn’t just want to make universities fit for the future and make them more cosmopolitan. A change of direction can also be expected under Biden when the USA is positioned in international and national bodies. Under Trump, the United States left the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Paris Climate Agreement. According to his announcements, Biden wants to withdraw both decisions immediately after taking office. According to media reports, he also wants to launch a billion-dollar climate package.

Biden wants everything his government does to be “based on science, facts and truth.” This is also reflected in the choice of his advisors. The advisory team nominated by him on Friday, the “Advisory Board of the President for Science and Technology”, should include the chemical engineer Frances Arnold and the astrophysicist Maria Zuber. The sociologist and Princeton professor Alondra Nelson is to become its deputy director for science and society, the geneticist and Harvard professor Eric Lander will take over as chief scientific advisor to the president. For the first time, the top scientific advisor to the US government is also given cabinet rank. Lander’s position is similar to that of a science minister. This initiative received a lot of praise from academia and academia in the USA. “Biden’s line-up speaks for his ability to simultaneously select highly competent people and represent diversity – a cabinet that looks like the country,” says Professor Christian Martin.

“A cabinet that looks like the country.” Prof. Christian Martin

All advisors proposed by Biden must be confirmed by the Senate after his inauguration. With a Democratic majority in the US House of Representatives and a stalemate in the Senate, it will be easier for Biden to execute his agenda overall. Nevertheless, the majority remains tight. There is likely to be disagreement within the democratic party about details of Biden’s agenda, in particular about the distribution of the planned costs in the trillions, for example for the cancellation of tuition fees or corona aid. According to media reports, there is also criticism that Biden’s agenda for higher education would mean strong federal interference in state matters and would also impose high costs on the states.

The plans are there, the wish list is long, but their implementation remains unclear in view of the difficult balance of power, a deeply divided country and ongoing crises. Trump’s legacy could also seem more difficult than previously thought, for example in climate research. In the environmental protection agency EPA alone, according to “Scientific American” 600 people went during his tenure, the budget had been cut more than expected. How much work there will be for “Team Biden” and what will remain of Biden’s ambitious goals will only become apparent during his term of office.


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