Science Policy & Funding Feature

Trump Administration Moving Closer to Picking Science Director

The White House is considering separating the usually merged roles of director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and assistant to the president for science and technology.


President Donald Trump could be nearing a decision to appoint a director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), a post whose occupant typically also is the assistant to the president for science and technology. “There is still momentum” for choosing a director, said an administration official knowledgeable about current circumstances within OSTP. To speak openly with Eos, he requested that his name not be published.

“I really think that this could be locked in within the next 4 to 6 weeks,” he added. “It’s overdue.”

Several former OSTP directors and other scientists knowledgeable about the office strongly agree with that last statement. Some of them told Eos that they are increasingly alarmed that the Trump administration has not yet selected a director and that the office is understaffed more than 6 months after Trump’s inauguration in January. One of the last visible signs of movement on the director post came in January when Trump spoke with at least two potential candidates about the position but then took no action to fill the vacancy.

The administration official added that it is unclear whether the next OSTP director would also be the assistant to the president for science and technology, a title that can provide greater access to the president and greater visibility for science within an administration. Candidate criteria for the OSTP director include management expertise to run the office as well as scientific credentials, the official noted. If the incoming director is stronger on the management side, he told Eos, the administration might consider bringing in a separate person with greater scientific expertise as assistant to the president.

Whether or not the OSTP director doubles as assistant to the president, the White House is looking for a director aligned with the Trump administration so that OSTP “is able to provide the right kind of scientific advice to the president in a way that will be received,” noted the official.

The administration is seeking to focus OSTP on three main priorities of the Trump administration. “In three broad buckets, we see [those priorities] as being very focused on job growth, on economic growth, and then on creating opportunities through reduced regulations,” he said. “How that translates into a director of OSTP means that the candidates that are going to be much more successful will be those who have ideas on how science policy and technology policy can reflect those topline ideals.”

Current thinking holds that the Trump administration’s OSTP might ultimately be reorganized to comprise three divisions: science, technology, and national security, the official said. Although a formal reorganization likely won’t happen until a director is on board, reshuffling has been taking place to ensure that all the work at OSTP is covered, he added.

Under John Holdren, who was both OSTP director and assistant to the president during the Obama administration and who was the longest-serving person to hold those positions, OSTP had four divisions—science, technology and innovation, national security and international affairs, and environment and energy—and included the office of the U.S. chief technology officer. Under George W. Bush, the office had two divisions: science and technology.

Just Trying to Keep the Trains Running

John Holdren, former director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
John Holdren, who was director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and assistant to the president for science and technology in the Obama administration, at a 2013 congressional hearing. Credit: Randy Showstack

Established in 1976 as an office within the White House, OSTP is meant to provide the administration with unbiased advice on a broad range of science and technology matters. The office also typically advises on budgets and legislation and helps with coordinating federal science agencies. It also administers bodies such as the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) and issues a variety of reports.

Currently, in lieu of an OSTP director, career civil servant Ted Wackler, a holdover from previous administrations, serves as acting director. Michael Kratsios, a political appointee who is deputy assistant to the president and deputy U.S. chief technology officer, serves as the current public face of the office.

During the Obama administration, OSTP’s staff grew to 135, including many temporary detailees from other federal science agencies who brought their expertise to OSTP. By the end of June of this year, OSTP had shrunk to 35 employees. That’s when the last scientists in the science division left, according to news reports.

A Striking Comparison

The differences between OSTP during the Obama years and now are “pretty striking,” said Holdren. “With 35 people and with most of the senior ones having departed, you cannot do remotely what OSTP was doing in the Obama administration and good government really requires OSTP to do.” Whereas Obama “understood how and why science and technology mattered to the national interest,” he added, “it seems questionable whether the current president and those closest to him understand that.”

Eos spoke with a former OSTP staffer in the science division who recently left. She asked that her name not be used so that she could speak openly about her experience. The office “is a very different place than it was,” she said. “Going from an organization where you feel like your contributions are valued and you are heard to one where you don’t even know who to talk to, let alone feel like you are valued, was a challenge.”

One problem with not having a director in place has been a lack of stated priorities within the office, either topically or policywise, the former staffer said. Without that guidance, “we were just trying to keep the trains running on everything.”

“We were advised to keep everything going as is, until a director can come and give that kind of direction and priorities and guidance,” the source said, adding that her decision to stay on after the change in administration was due to her belief in OSTP’s mission. “I really wanted to help the next team get going and help support them as they figure out what their priorities are going to be. There just wasn’t a next team, or hasn’t been yet.”

Tamara Dickinson, former principal assistant director for OSTP’s energy and environment division, stressed that there are still very capable people at OSTP doing the best they can “under the circumstances.” However, she told Eos that the current lack of scientific leadership at OSTP “is particularly problematic should the nation have to respond to a crisis such as an epidemic disease outbreak or national disaster.”

No Place for Science at the Table?

According to Holdren and other former OSTP directors and scientific leaders, the lack of an OSTP director and assistant to the president for science and technology limits scientific input at the White House on important issues, including the federal budget, climate change, and a host of other science and technology issues, and on crises that crop up. The lag in appointments of other senior federal science agency officials just adds to concerns that the administration does not value science, they said.

Although “there is so little evidence that President Trump listens to reasoned arguments,” a prompt appointment by him of an OSTP head might have provided some counterweight as the president was deciding whether to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, Holdren speculated. “The voice from science in the room was missing,” he added, “but whether its presence would have led to a different result, I would not assert.”

“I’m disappointed that the Trump administration seems bent on either reversing or ignoring so much of what we did in the Obama administration on science, technology, and innovation,” Holdren told Eos. “We need to be concerned about what’s going on in a very broad way, not just the appointment but what is happening in the absence of the appointment in terms of bad decisions and bad policies.”

He cautioned that if Trump appoints an OSTP director but does not appoint an assistant to the president, two titles that Holdren held, it will be harder for that person to be at the policy-making table to add a science perspective on important issues.

“There are clearly folks around Trump who don’t want science and technology at the table because the advice of scientists and technologists would likely go against their ideological previous positions,” he said.

Science Facing Steep Budget Cuts

The president’s proposed fiscal year (FY) 2018 budget, which Congress currently is reviewing and which slashes funding for many federal science agencies, “shows extremely low priority for science,” said Neal Lane. He served as OSTP director and assistant to the president in the Clinton administration. “It’s an unprecedented, in my view, antiscience budget,” he told Eos.

When Lane, Holdren, and other former OSTP directors were in office, they worked closely with the White House Office of Management and Budget to formulate funding proposals for federal science agencies. However, the budget that the Trump administration put forward for the coming year “reflects the absence of input from the science and technology side,” Holdren said.

Inadequate support for science can hurt industry as well as science institutions, said Jerry Miller, who was an assistant director for ocean sciences at OSTP during the Obama administration from 2009 to 2013 and is a member of the Eos editorial advisory board. “Innovations necessary to grow our manufacturing sector are based on basic and applied research leading to new capabilities. Without coordinated investments across relevant federal agencies, such capabilities may never be developed.”

Physicist William Happer, who met with Trump earlier this year as a candidate for the top OSTP position, agreed that science doesn’t fare as well as it should under the current federal budget proposal. Happer is a professor emeritus at Princeton University who told Eos that he recognizes the need for an OSTP director and assistant to the president for science and technology and that he supports Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate accord.

“Hopefully, for next year’s [FY 2019] budget, the administration will have had a chance to really focus on what needs to be done for science,” he told Eos. “But if they had some sensible help from OSTP, I think they would submit a better budget for the country.” OSTP “can be a force for good for American science,” including in advising about how to distribute federal science funding “to get the best result for the American people,” Happer added. For now, however, administration officials “have a lot more—what they are thinking—more important fish to fry.”

Call for Quick Appointment Not Heeded

Despite the poor budget numbers, Happer said he does not “detect any contempt for science or any hostility to science” by the president. He disputes that the slow pace of science appointments means that science is being disparaged. “Across the government, [Trump] moved pretty quickly on cabinet secretaries and top people, but it’s been very slow for the less important administration jobs,” he said. Happer told Eos that he does not know whether the White House is still considering him for the OSTP position.

Neal Lane, former director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Neal Lane, former director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Clinton administration, addresses the National Science Board in Arlington, Va., on 29 July 1999. Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

Neal Lane acknowledged that some administrations move faster than others with OSTP appointments. For instance, Holdren began his service in March after Obama’s inauguration. However, Jack Marburger, who did not hold the title of assistant to the president, began his tenure as OSTP director in the October following the inauguration of George W. Bush. That delay occurred even though Marburger was nominated in June. Lane and others said that the Trump administration’s delay may result from a lack of transition planning prior to the election and from other priorities and distractions consuming its attention.

Whatever the causes, however, “what’s unusual here, that’s of concern to people in the [science] community, including myself,” Lane said, “is that there has been so much disregard for scientific evidence and science as important in policy making.” Lane cited “outrageous statements made by the president and others in the administration that just heighten one’s worry about the lack of having anybody sitting in the White House who has access to the president and his senior people who knows science and can actually say what science is all about.”

U.S. White House.
The Trump administration is starting a slow rebuilding of the staff of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, according to an administration official. Credit: Thomas Faull/iStock Unreleased/Getty Images Plus

Lane was the lead author of a September 2016 report that called for the administration to move quickly to appoint a nationally recognized scientist or engineer as assistant to the president for science and technology and to put together a team for OSTP. The report “does not appear to have been influential with this administration,” he noted.

“It’s not good enough to say that other administrations were slower than we are” in appointing an OSTP director, said Rush Holt, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D. C.

“Every day that we don’t have a full complement of people comfortable with science in the government, we are more likely to make bad decisions, more likely to come out to play the wrong odds, more likely to come out on the short end of the stick in international negotiations,” Holt told Eos.

“A Slow Build”

A gradual upturn in staffing is under way for OSTP, the administration official told Eos. The office tally has inched back up to 36, with several more personnel in the pipeline. Staffing the office “is a slow build,” he said.

“We’re staffing it back up but probably won’t hit those Obama-era levels and [are] really looking at how we might reorganize so the office makes better use of the resources,” he said. “There is a lot of technical and scientific skill here. We don’t want them to be stuck in silos. We want it to be more cross collaborative, a flatter type [of organization], if you will.”

OSTP’s broad range of work continues, including in the science division’s area, despite people in that division having left, he emphasized.

“When people report that there is nobody left in the science division, it’s a little bit of splitting hairs because it’s very focused on how the office was set up previously [under Holdren] and expecting it to continue to be set up that way,” he explained.

“There has not been any mandate or directive to do things particularly differently. OSTP has always been a coordination office, always been a convener, been an office that makes sure the reports get done and the right people are in the room. And that has been continuing,” he added.

The National Science and Technology Council has reauthorized most, if not all, of its working groups, and the administration intends to restart PCAST, he noted. PCAST “fits really well with the administration’s approach to governing, so I can’t imagine that they wouldn’t want to tap into that greater level of experts,” he said.

The official added that OSTP wants to keep an open door and wants to hear from the scientific community. Rather than scientists being consumed with alarm, he encouraged them to think about how to work with the administration on its priorities.

“Keeping in mind that the issues the administration is really focused on are national security, jobs, and economic growth,” he asked, “how can we as the science community put our work into that framework, and how can we explain it to the administration in ways that reflect administration values?”

Although anxiety and disappointment about reduced support for science and suspicion of the White House are running strong within much of that scientific community, some hope remains as well. “There is certainly still an opportunity, I think, for the administration to find someone who is willing to do the job [of leading OSTP] under the current circumstances and who is an accomplished scientist or engineer,” said Lane.

Added Holdren, “We should also continue to hope that a capable OSTP director, and very preferably assistant to the president for science and technology, gets appointed.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Editor’s Note: The American Geophysical Union (AGU), which publishes Eos, publicly advocated since before President Donald Trump took office for him to promptly appoint a science adviser. A petition launched online on 21 November 2016 by AGU that urged Trump “to make appointing a Science Advisor an immediate priority” was delivered to the White House on 24 February 2017 after it received more than 10,000 signatures.

Citation: Showstack, R. (2017), Trump administration moving closer to picking science director, Eos, 98, Published on 27 July 2017.
Text © 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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