Trump Nominated an Actual Scientist to Lead a Science Agency, And We're Shocked

Sorry, what?

31 JAN 2018

On Friday, President Trump shocked everybody and announced that he has nominated former astronaut Dr. James Reilly, who has a PhD in geosciences, to lead the U.S. Geological Survey.


When picking nominees for science-related positions in his government, Trump has largely ignored the credentials of his candidates. In fact, according to Nature, Reilly is only the second person Trump has nominated with a science PhD to lead a science agency.

In December, the Associated Press reported that almost 60 percent of Trump's nominees for science-related positions do not have a master's degree or a doctorate in a science or health field.

As a result, Trump's nominees have been roundly and repeatedly criticized for their lack of expertise and experience during their senatorial hearings.

But Trump's most recent nomination actually seems… qualified?

For over a decade, Reilly was a chief geologist at a Dallas-based oil and gas company, before joining NASA and logging 856 hours in space.

"You can't be an astronaut and have thin skin," said Robert Stern, a geoscientist at the University of Texas Dallas who supervised Reilly's master's thesis. Stern says he believes Reilly's experience at NASA and his ability to work well with people will help him in the new role.

Stern isn't the only one who's hopeful about Reilly's nomination. As a former petroleum geologist, Reilly has been described as having an "excellent working knowledge" of the USGS, according to Allyson Anderson Book, the executive director of the American Geosciences Institute.


"I'm interested to see what [Reilly] will prioritize," said Anderson Book, who hopes that the next USGS director will maintain the agency's library, a one-of-a-kind collection of thousands of historical scientific records from around the world.

Still, Reilly's nomination does not necessarily mean that the President is serious about the future of USGS. Last year, Trump proposed a 15 percent funding cut for the USGS and nearly a 50 percent cut for the USGS library.

"Shutting [the library] down would undermine the work of USGS," said Anderson Book. She says she hopes Reilly will not only focus on protecting the library, but will also focus on the agency's biology programs and activities.

If confirmed, Reilly will be in charge of the science arm of the Interior Department, which is responsible for overseeing one-fifth of the nation's landmass.

The position is extremely important, especially now that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has called for an expansion of domestic mining, as well as onshore and offshore oil and gas drilling, some of which might take place in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

The USGS, and John Reilly in particular, will be responsible for revising the oil reserve estimates and mapping the country's mineral resources for Zinke. As a result, nearly every decision that Reilly makes in this leadership role will have direct implications for the environment. And while that's super scary, we are hopeful that a scientist can do the job right.

"Leading the USGS requires a strong commitment to scientific integrity and supporting the great work of USGS scientists, and advocating forcefully for the USGS mission within the Department of Interior," Peter Frumhoff, Director of Science and Policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Earther.

"Reilly should commit to upholding these policies and principles that allow USGS scientists to carry out the agency's essential mission unfettered by political interference."