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Obama’s Science Adviser Blasts Trump Policies and Personnel

In a no-holds-barred speech, John Holdren renews call for a White House science adviser.

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Former president Barack Obama’s science adviser, John Holdren, sharply and publicly criticized President Donald Trump’s science policies and appointees earlier this month. Among his criticisms, Holdren found fault with Trump for not yet appointing a science adviser.

Trump “has appointed or nominated fact-averse ideologues” to key executive branch science and technology positions, including Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, Holdren charged in a biting speech. He delivered the address to the American Academy of Political and Social Science on 17 May in Washington, D. C.

Holdren also took Trump to task for proposing big cuts to nondefense research and development, driving out some proenvironment public servants from federal agencies, rescinding or reversing numerous Obama administration environmental decisions, and promising last 1 June to withdraw from the Paris climate change accord.

More Damage Than Expected

“Trump actually has been able to do more damage than I expected he would be able to do in a little more than a year in office,” Holdren said in the blistering speech that he jokingly announced was subtitled “Holdren Unleashed.”

“My view is that regardless of what President Trump may still manage to accomplish in selected domains—maybe he’ll accomplish something in North Korea—his ignorant, bigoted, bullying, prevaricating, America-alone stance has demeaned his office, has damaged our democracy, and has diminished U.S. standing in the world,” said Holdren, who guided Obama on science from 2009 to 2017. Currently, Holdren is a professor of environmental policy at Harvard University, codirector of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and senior adviser to the president of the Woods Hole Research Center, Falmouth, Mass.

John Holdren walks along the White House colonnade with President Barack Obama in November 2010.
John Holdren walks along the White House colonnade with President Barack Obama in November 2010. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

“I think there will be no rescuing the presidency short of jettisoning Trump, either at the ballot box in 2020 or by congressional intervention sooner,” he said, adding that the 2018 midterm elections could be important.

Holdren said that despite Trump’s best efforts at dismantling Obama’s environmental initiatives, “the work that we have done will endure, some of it being pursued in the trenches across the departments and agencies, and some of it as building blocks for the next, more rational administration to come along.” He also encouraged scientists to continue to work in federal government “for as long as they can get important stuff done,” he said, adding, “If you finally find you can’t get it done in government, you shouldn’t feel terrible about leaving; and, by the way, please tell some folks why.” Holdren made a specific reference to Joel Clement, a former Interior Department scientist and policy analyst who resigned and spoke out publicly last year after being involuntarily reassigned to an accounting position.

A Renewed Call for a White House Science Adviser

In contrast to Trump, Holdren called Obama “the most science-savvy president since Thomas Jefferson.” Holdren, who also served as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), said that Obama “understood in his bones how and why science and technology mattered to virtually every other issue on his agenda.” Holdren added that the former president also allowed him to build up OSTP from 45 to 135 staff.

Since the early 1940s, most presidents have had science advisers, Holdren noted. He said that if somebody was in that position now, he or she could provide Trump with valuable advice. Although there are other scientists in positions at various federal agencies, “if you don’t have a capable scientist/technologist on the President’s senior staff, [Trump] and his other senior advisers in the White House might not even recognize the relevance of science to the choices that are in front of [the] president.” Holdren added that a science adviser would provide a trusted source of science information independent of the agendas of particular agencies while also understanding how to tap the expertise within different agencies.

President Trump earlier this year offhandedly offered the science adviser job to Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who turned it down, according to news reports.

In an interview with Eos following his speech, Holdren said that he doesn’t know why Trump has not yet appointed a science adviser. One possible explanation is that the administration has “been too disorganized and too under siege from many different directions,” Holdren said. “So, you could argue that it’s disorganization and distraction as much as anything.”

However, another explanation could be that Trump “has also shown a lot of signs of not being sure he needs any science advice and thinking [that] just like he’s his own political adviser and his own national security adviser and his own economic adviser, he thinks he’s his own science adviser,” Holdren said. “He doesn’t actually know very much about any of these subjects, but he imagines that he’s smarter than everybody else.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2018), Obama’s science adviser blasts Trump policies and personnel, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO100225. Published on 30 May 2018.
Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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