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Can the White House Office of Science Survive Trump?

The office is nearly empty, and a climate-change denier may be picked to run it. "There is reason to worry," says Obama's top science advisor.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

When President Barack Obama took the White House in 2008, his knowledge of science was admittedly limited, but his interest in it wasn’t. Within days of his election, he began selecting the scientists and tech wonks for his science advisory board, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The OSTP was fully staffed within months, and became “the most active in history, starting 34 studies of subjects as varied as advanced manufacturing and cybersecurity,” according to The New York Times. The office also advised Obama on relevant budgets, technological advancements, and policy goals, and organized an annual science fair for youngsters that produced reliably fun, nerdy videos in which, for instance, a student fires a marshmallow cannon inside the State Dining Room of the White House.

Today, nearly three months into Donald Trump’s presidency, OSTP is nearly empty. According to a report last week in The New York Times, the 24-person staff of the chief technology officer “has been virtually deleted,” and scores of career OSTP staffers have departed since Obama skipped town. The White House confirmed on Tuesday that Trump has only made one new hire. Michael Kratsios, formerly the chief of staff for the venture capitalist and Trump donor Peter Thiel, is serving as deputy chief technology officer. It had been widely reported that Princeton University physicist William Happer was being considered for the position of OSTP director, but Happer told me he hasn’t heard anything from the Trump administration since his initial meeting with them in January. “I don’t think it is very likely that I will be offered the job,” he said.

A bare-bones OSTP staff at this point is not unprecedented. President George W. Bush waited until June of his first year to select his science advisor. But amid endless accusations that Trump is waging a war on science, his lack of attention to OSTP concerns scientists such as Dr. John Holdren, the former OSTP director and Obama’s chief science advisor.

There is reason to worry about whether President Trump will ever fill some of these positions, given his rhetoric and that of some of his close advisors, to the effect that it’s not clear a lot of these positions are needed,” Holdren said in an e-mail. “That view reflects a profound ignorance (or willful misdirection) concerning the importance of sensible federal government science and technology policies for the U.S. economy, national security, public health, and the environment, among other values.”

But the White House insists OSTP won’t remain empty for long. Eleanor Celeste, currently the office’s assistant director for biomedical and forensic sciences, told me that the Trump administration “is working to recruit and confirm a director and has begun the process of recruiting new staff.” Indeed, another candidate for OSTP director, Yale computer scientist David Gelernter, told me the White House has “never considered” leaving the position unfilled, and that he believes he’s still in the running.

If Trump does appoint him as his chief science advisor, that would represent a dramatic change from the Obama years: Gelernter denies that climate change is man-made. Meanwhile, more subtle changes are under way at the OSTP’s website, the significance of which is much less clear.

Since Trump took office in January, several tweaks have been made to numerous OSTP webpages, according to a report shared with the New Republic by the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI), the group of scientists and academics who track changes to federal government webpages. Among other things, the office’s mission statement no longer reads that the office provides the president with “accurate, relevant, and timely scientific technical advice.” Now it just reads “advice.” A line that said the office “ensures that the policies of the Executive Branch are informed by sound science” has been removed.

EDGI has discovered similar-sounding changes before. In March, they found that the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (different from the White House OSTP) had completely removed the word “science” from its mission statement, among other changes. Where the EPA’s science office once said it developed “science-based” standards to address pollution, it now says the office develops “economically and technologically achievable standards.” That small change was widely considered significant, a reflection of the changing priorities of the EPA’s science office under the new administration.

But the changes to OSTP’s site don’t raise a red flag, said Kei Koizumi, who worked on the website as the office’s assistant director of federal research and development under Obama. “These are the types of minor word changes we did eight years ago, and even the ones we did mid-course in the Obama administration,” he said. “They removed the phrase ‘sound science,’ but ‘science’ is still there. That’s a legitimate editorial choice. I don’t think they necessarily signal any change in what OSTP would do or would not do.”

If anything, Koizumi said, the changes are are a positive sign: They mean someone is paying attention to the site. “I’m encouraged that the new website that’s being rebuilt includes the mission statement, includes the organic statute to remind people that, unlike many White House offices, this White House office was created by Congress and given legal standing to exist,” he said. (Congress created the office in 1976, several years after President Richard Nixon eliminated the President’s Science Advisory Committee.)

“Some of the changes are improvements,” Holdren agreed, but cautioned that these don’t indicate improvements to the office itself. For instance, he said, it’s unlikely the OSTP had any input in Trump’s first proposed budget, given that it recommends dramatic cuts to government research programs, including $6 billion from the National Institutes of Health, $900 million from the Office of Science at DOE, and billions more from federal science programs at NOAA, Environmental Protection Agency, and NASA. “The real changes at OSTP will come if and when Trump decides to fully staff the office with his own personal appointees,” he said.

If Gelernter winds up being Trump’s appointee for OSTP, that would indicate an enormous change. Holdren strongly advised Obama to be aggressive in fighting climate change, but Gelernter claims that global warming is caused by “natural” occupations. “For human beings to change the climate of the planet is a monstrously enormous undertaking,” Gelernter told the Yale Daily News. “I haven’t seen convincing evidence of it.” While Holdren is widely seen as a mainstream, level-headed scientist, Gelernter has been described as a “bombastic” anti-intellectual, a “vehement critic of modern academia” who once called Obama a “third-rate tyrant.” Gelernter would also be the first computer scientist to hold the position of OSTP director (most have been physicists) and the first not to belong to any major scientific societies.

It’s no surprise that someone like Gelernter would be in the running for Trump’s OSTP, given the president’s hostility toward mainstream science. But Holdren says the greater concern is Trump’s hostility to facts in general.

“The Trump Administration is shaping up, overall, as the most evidence-averse U.S. administration in history,” he said. “The President himself seems either unable or unwilling to distinguish between reality and what he wishes reality would be... All this does not bode well for the role of insights from and about science in the Trump Administration, particularly if those insights do not comport with what the President would prefer to be true.”