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Trump Still Has No Top Science Advisors, And That's Both Terrifying And Unprecedented

Why is no one talking about this?

CARLY CASSELLA
21 NOV 2017
 

Last week, the Trump administration caused quite the kerfuffle when they announced elephant trophies can now be imported to the United States. Then, two days later, President Trump reversed his decision:

The tweet led many to wonder: Why didn't the President review all the facts before his administration made such a controversial decision?

 

The reality is that nearly ten months into his presidency and more than a year after his inauguration, President Trump has very little scientific guidance. In fact, Trump has taken longer than any modern President to name a chief science advisor, and many of the leading scientific advisory positions in his White House remain empty.

Not only are his decisions - or lack thereof - largely unprecedented, they are also incredibly dangerous for the future of the country. Particularly at a time when many of the big issues facing the country are based on science and technology - think climate change, cryptocurrencies, food security, economics.

According to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), there are over a dozen priority scientific appointments that "a new administration should address in the first months after the inauguration." The report argues these positions are essential to implementing long term priorities in our budget and our policy-making process.

In June, the Washington Post reported President Trump had failed to fill 85 percent of these top science positions.

Particularly worrying are the number of key leadership positions in the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) that remain empty. OSTP is the top scientific advisory body within the Executive Office, and exactly the sort of place that could have provided Trump with "all the conservation facts."

Nevertheless, the President has ignored the office almost entirely.

 

The voice of science is going unheard

Although you might not have heard of it, OSTP is the epicenter of science and technology at the White House. From here, the waves of scientific inquiry spread to all areas of the federal government, informing policy and practice.

As such, the Director has an important and irreplaceable role to play in the US government. They are responsible for providing the President with accurate, relevant and timely scientific and technical advice on topics ranging from the economy to public health to the environment. In addition, they must ensure the policies and practices of the executive branch are informed by the best science.

Well - at least - they should.

Traditionally, the Director of OSTP also serves as the president's chief science advisor. But one year into his presidency, Trump has failed to appoint a director and has kept the office unusually small.

It is important to note here that the size of OSTP has varied greatly in the past depending on the administration in charge. But it's never been this small before.

 

Under Obama's leadership, the office peaked at 135 people, under Bush it had about 50 people, and under Clinton it had about 60 people. But under Trump's leadership, the office was reduced all the way down to 35 people, and there it remained for months.

"But what's shocking is that, this far into the new administration, the numbers haven't gone back up," former OSTP director and Harvard Professor John Holdren told Science in July. Since then, only ten new staffers have arrived at OSTP.

"The reason we ended up with 135 people at our peak ... was that [Obama] was so interested in knowing what science could do to advance his agenda, on economic recovery, or energy and climate change, or national intelligence."

But Trump is clearly not as interested in what science has to say.

The entire science advisory cabinet is disappearing

Without a director, some of the most necessary functions of OSTP have ceased to exist. For instance, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology has all but disappeared.

The group is usually made up of 18 science and technology experts that are appointed and co-chaired by the Director of OSTP. In the past, the group has addressed antibiotic resistance, cybersecurity, climate change and agricultural preparedness.

 

Now, the future of the council remains uncertain. Obama's executive order authorizing the council expired at the end of September. As of November, the President has not signed an executive order re-establishing the Council.

He has also failed to nominate scientists for the four associate director positions of the OSTP.

Right now, there are three holdovers from the Obama administration: Lloyd Whitman in technology, Chris Fall in national security, and Deerin Babb-Brott in environment and energy. But with no overall agenda, these de facto appointments are temporary at best.

So who's in charge?

To be fair, President Trump hasn't done nothing. He has appointed Michael Kratsios as de facto OSTP head - but it could be argued that this appointment has ulterior motives.

Kratsios is President Trump's appointee for deputy chief technology officer, and a former aide to Trump ally and Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel. While it is somewhat assuring that there is a person overseeing OSTP, the position of Director legally requires Senate confirmation.

Taken at its worst, President Trump's appointment of Kratsios is an attempt to skirt the need for Senate approval. At its best, it is an act of mere laziness.

"The top people there now are Michael Kratsios ... and Ted Wackler, who was my deputy chief of staff," said Holdren.

"And I believe that they are doing everything they can to make sure that OSTP, at the very least, does the things it has to do. … But right now I think OSTP is just hanging on."