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A Disturbing Number of Trump's Science Nominees Don't Have a Science Background

Who needs scientists anyway?

CARLY CASSELLA
5 DEC 2017
 

President Trump has taken his time to fill the top science posts in his government. Ten months into his presidency, Trump has failed to nominate someone for 35 percent of the senate-confirmable positions that deal with science and the environment. This percentage includes all four top positions at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

 

And – unlike previous administrations - when President Trump finally gets around to nominating someone, scientific literacy isn't a priority.

Compared to their Obama predecessors, the Trump administration's nominees for these scientific positions have significantly fewer science academic credentials.

To be exact, of the 43 Trump administration nominees in science-related positions, almost 60 percent do not have a master's degree or a doctorate in a science or health field, according to a recent Associated Press analysis.

"I knew the dire straits we were in, but seeing it laid out with percentages really amplifies the horror," one of the organizers of the March for Science Dr. Caroline Weinberg told AP in an email.

The AP analysis examined 65 positions that deal with science and the environment. The data reveals ten months into Trump's presidency, many of these science-related positions remain unfilled, and the ones that have been filled are occupied by individuals with very little scientific understanding.

"This is just reflective of the disdain that the administration has shown for science," said Christie Todd Whitman, a former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief.

 

Although Whitman does not have an advanced degree in science herself, she says while she was EPA chief she made a concerted effort to surround herself with scientifically literate individuals.

"When you're talking about science, issues about protecting human health… it's very, very complicated and sophisticated work," she said.

"You need the background and experience to handle these things."

The lack of scientific experience in the Trump administration is certainly worrying. According to the analysis, the number of political appointees with a doctorate in science or a medical degree has dropped 21 percent from Obama's presidency. And it only gets worse when it comes to master's degrees, which have decreased by a third under the Trump administration.

During their senatorial hearings, many of Trump's nominees were roundly criticized for their lack of scientific understanding.

Trump's top environmental nominee Kathleen Hartnett White even admitted at her hearing that she does not have "any kind of expertise or even much layman study of the ocean dynamics and the climate change issue." Nevertheless, the senate committee approved her nomination.

 

But of all the government agencies, the lack of scientific understanding is most notable in the Energy Department. Of the seven science-oriented nominees for the Energy Department, none of them have even a master's degree in a science field. Instead, most of them are lawyers and business people.

For comparison's sake, five of Obama's nominees had master's degrees in a science field, and four had science doctorates.

Even the leader of the Energy Department lacks a strong, scientific background. Under the Obama administration, both Energy secretaries had doctorates in physics, and one of them was even a Nobel prize winner. Next to these remarkable scientists, Rick Perry's bachelor's degree in animal science looks trivial.

None of this is to say that only scientists can do these jobs. Whitman is proof that the leader of an agency can lack a strong background in science as long as they are buttressed by conflict-free and and scientifically informed experts.

Unfortunately, in many cases the Trump administration has preferenced industry interest over scientific expertise. 

Take what's happening at the EPA, for example. Recently, head of the EPA Scott Pruitt - who has a background in law - made the controversial decision to fire academic scientists from the agency's science advisory board if they received EPA grants. Now, he has largely replaced these scientists with industry-connected experts – never mind their conflicts-of-interest.

"The pattern of a repeated tilt toward industry scientists, and ones known for disparaging the record of the agencies they are appointed to, is worrisome," said William K. Reilly, who was EPA administrator under George H.W. Bush.

This isn't about making jobs for science, says CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Rush Holt. Instead, he argues, it is about providing the best advice for government leaders who have to make tough decisions.

"It's the policy-makers themselves who need it. If they want to develop policies that are most likely to succeed, they should make those policies with the understanding available of how things are," said Holt, a former physicist and Democratic congressman from New Jersey.

"We do this with the age-old, time-tested procedure of determining how things are. We call that science."

And right now, that is something the Trump administration is severely lacking.