WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Thursday announced a plan to force universities that violate free-speech principles to forfeit billions of dollars in biomedical research and other scientific grants.
It is unclear, however, whether any universities might actually be impacted — and whether the requirements, unveiled in an executive order, represent a massive disruption for the country’s research infrastructure or a political statement that will leave scientific work untouched.
“Universities have to comply with the First Amendment,” said Kei Koizumi, who served as assistant director for federal research in former president Barack Obama’s science office, describing the Trump administration’s plan. “It’s like, yeah — duh.”
The executive order requires 12 federal agencies overseeing grants to universities to work with the White House budget office “to ensure institutions that receive Federal research or education grants promote free inquiry.”
Whether the move could nonetheless threaten access to National Institutes of Health funding that research universities rely on, experts said, likely hinges on how aggressively the Trump administration’s health department interprets and enforces the new doctrine.
“It’s another tool that could be used against universities,” Koizumi said. “It’s another thing hanging over their heads, but it’s not insignificant.”
The mystery surrounding the policy announcement has alarmed research advocates in Washington, including Capitol Hill aides, university-employed lobbyists, and even the National Institutes of Health. But the science community at large still has little clue what to make of the order.
The NIH referred requests for comment to the Department of Health and Human Services, which referred requests for comment to the White House. The Trump administration, in a Thursday afternoon ceremony and an earlier telephone briefing with reporters, provided little detail about the order and its implementation, instead saying more announcements would be made in the coming weeks.
The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities called the executive order a “very concerning federal overreach.”
“Under this executive order, politically-appointed department and agency heads have been directed to take action that could, as President Trump suggested, strip or block federal research funding from universities they subjectively believe aren’t adequately permitting the diverse debate of ideas,” said APLU president Peter McPherson.
Other groups have noted that universities already comply with federal law, agency regulations, and campus policies governing speech issues.
Mary Sue Coleman, the president of the Association of American Universities, called the executive order “a solution in search of a problem,” saying that freedom of academic inquiry was a cornerstone of the group’s member institutions. The order also includes language to ensure private universities comply with their own stated policies regarding freedom of speech and inquiry.
But isolated instances of protests or discipline for faculty members who have voiced politically unpopular positions have inflamed Trump — most notably, a conservative activist who was assaulted on UC Berkeley’s campus. (Neither the activist nor his attacker were students.)
“We’re dealing with billions and billions and billions of dollars,” President Trump said Thursday before an East Room audience that included health secretary Alex Azar. “Taxpayer dollars should not subsidize anti-First Amendment institutions.”
Other conservatives have cited the case of a Portland State University professor who published an article called “The Case for Colonialism” and, following its publication, was investigated by the school’s diversity office after being accused of engaging in harassment.
While the larger free-speech push centers mostly on highly publicized campus protests, the Trump order could potentially involve researchers typically uninvolved in such controversies, including the scientists and graduate students who apply for research grants often worth six- or seven seven-figure sums.
An order that impacts college campuses in a blanket fashion is precisely the point, said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.
“Part of the problem is that the folks working in the engineering school, in the medical school, and are getting the hefty contracts from NIH and [the Department of Defense] have left the campus speech codes and the campus behavioral codes to these other folks,” Hess said. “They’re like, look: We just want to do our research.”
The risk of otherwise apolitical research being “compromised” by an anti-free-speech agenda, Hess argued, could incentivize researchers to help guard against such constraints.
Most universities, however, have sought to protect unpopular campus viewpoints. The University of California, Berkeley, for example, the home of the free speech movement in the mid-1960, has aggressively sought to allow speakers’ presence and paid thousands of dollars in extra security costs for that purpose.
While protecting free speech is simple in principle, the Trump administration could face resistance even from within the Republican ranks.
“I agree that colleges should punish hecklers who veto free speech, and stop coddling students to protect them from disagreeable points of view,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a former education secretary who currently oversees NIH appropriations. “But I don’t want to see Congress or the president or the department of anything creating speech codes to define what you can say on campus.”