When a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami struck Japan on March 11, 2011, the White House suddenly found itself confronting a nuclear crisis halfway across the globe.
Radiation was wafting from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, and President Barack Obama needed to make immediate decisions: Should he evacuate U.S. military bases near Fukushima? Should he also call for the evacuation of 90,000 Americans living in Tokyo – surely sparking panic in a region of 37 million people?
Answers to these questions fell largely to Obama’s science adviser, John P. Holdren, a physicist. Holdren quickly put together a model that suggested that the expected radiation levels, while worrisome, would be far lower than the Pentagon had first estimated. Evacuation orders were put on hold. As Jeffrey Bader, a former senior director at the National Security Council, said in 2012, “Holdren’s rapid and careful work had averted a potential slide toward unnecessary and damaging decisions.”
Three months into his presidency, Donald Trump has yet to appoint a science adviser. The Office of Science and Technology Policy, which grew to 135 employees under Obama, is at just one-fourth that level. Trump’s proposed federal budget, prepared without the input of a science adviser, calls for deep cuts in federal science agencies, particularly those involved in climate-change research.
Science advocates are pushing back. On Saturday, tens of thousands of people attended “March for Science” events worldwide, including one in Washington. Even bigger crowds are expected this Saturday for the Peoples Climate March, a response to the president’s environmental policies.
Trump’s defenders say his priorities are jobs, the economy and national security, and they expect him to make science appointments in due time. “Rigorous science is critical to my administration’s efforts to achieve the twin goals of economic growth and environmental protection,” Trump was quoted as saying in an official statement from the White House.
But critics say Trump seems indifferent to science, which could skew his policy decisions and limit his ability to respond knowledgeably to a national emergency, such as an oil spill or nuclear accident.
“Science advisers can have a lot of clout,” said Holdren, who held the job for all eight years Obama was in office. For Trump, he said, “Every day of delay without some senior people in science and technology is opportunity lost.”
On the campaign trail, Trump was an outspoken skeptic of climate-change science and of vaccines and a frequent repeater of unverified facts and falsehoods. As president, he has made just one top science appointment, selecting Michael Kratsios, the former chief of staff for Silicon Valley investor and Trump adviser Peter Thiel, to serve as the White House deputy chief technology officer.
Every day of delay without some senior people in science and technology is opportunity lost.
John P. Holdren, former White House science adviser
By contrast, Obama had recruited Holdren and his scientific team roughly a month before he was inaugurated in 2009. That team included physicist Steven Chu, Obama’s pick for energy secretary and the first Nobel Prize winner to be nominated to a Cabinet position.
Trump has made clear that he wants to scale back numerous federal science programs, including the National Institutes of Health, and ax many of Obama’s research initiatives. His budget calls for eliminating the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, a $280 million cut. Pushed forward by Chu and Obama, this agency was created in the George W. Bush administration with an aim of making the United States more competitive in advanced energy technologies.
This month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced he was eliminating the National Commission on Forensic Science, an advisory panel of scientists, judges, crime lab leaders, prosecutors and defense lawyers. The panel was formed after a 2009 National Academy of Sciences report found serious flaws in how forensic evidence was being used in criminal cases. But many federal prosecutors and district attorneys opposed the commission for fear it would lead to relitigation of past criminal convictions.
One Washington think tank with close ties to Trump has recommended eliminating the Office of Science and Technology Policy, an executive branch agency that Congress created in 1976 and that was previously headed by Holden. “The OSTP and its surrounding bureaucracy do not provide anything in service to the president that specially appointed committees might not also accomplish, as has historically been done,” wrote the Heritage Foundation in a report last year.
In an interview, Holdren rebutted that contention, arguing that special scientific committees can’t be formed in time to respond to emergencies or to answer questions a president might pose while deliberating policy. During the Fukushima nuclear crisis, Holdren said, he and his staff worked double overtime. “I went through two 90-hour weeks,” he recalled.
Traditionally, the Office of Science and Technology Policy is headed by the president’s science adviser and serves as his or her research staff. While Trump hasn’t signaled whether he will keep the office, he has met with two science adviser candidates. One is William Happer, a Princeton professor emeritus of physics who’s a prominent skeptic of human-caused climate change.
The other is Yale computer scientist David Gelernter, a prolific author, critic of academia and global warming skeptic. Like Happer, Gelernter met with Trump at Trump Tower in New York in January. He also was a victim of the Unabomber, injured by a letter bomb sent in 1993 by Ted Kaczynski, the anarchist and domestic terrorist.
Gelernter couldn’t be reached for comment, but in an interview in The Scientist in February, he forcefully rejected the claim that Trump is an opponent of science.
“The idea that he is anti-science is bigoted,” said Gelernter. “I think it’s the worst kind of bigotry. It’s the kind of bigotry that says non-Ivy League Ph.D.s – ordinary human beings who haven’t won any science awards and don’t come from Harvard – are probably too stupid to be interested in science.”
The idea that he (Trump) is anti-science is bigoted. I think it’s the worst kind of bigotry.
David Gelernter, Yale computer scientist interviewed by Trump to be his science adviser
Lynn Scarlett, who held the Interior Department’s No. 2 post in the Bush administration, said Trump’s low number of science appointments was partly a reflection of the administration’s general lag in filling many positions. As of Monday, Trump had nominated people to only 82 of 554 executive branch jobs requiring Senate confirmation, according to a database maintained by The Washington Post and Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group.
Among the science agencies, top jobs have yet to be filled at the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, among other agencies.
Scarlett, who now works at the Nature Conservancy, said she was disappointed that Trump had proposed deep funding cuts for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, NOAA and other environmental science programs. Such decisions could reflect a lack of scientific input, she said. “You need people who can help digest the science programs and interpret them for non-science leadership,” she said.
When Bush took office, the Interior Department adopted different policies from those of the Clinton administration – it was more pro-business, less regulatory – yet it still depended on science, said Scarlett. Scientists were involved in decisions about thinning forests to reduce wildfire risks, as well as the Bush administration’s 2008 decision to list the polar bear as a threatened species because of climate change, she said.
“Science is about how the world works,” said Scarlett. “It informs us on what the problems are, but it’s also critical to formulating what the solutions are.”