The Trump administration’s relationship with science is fractured. As a result of budget cuts and anti-science policy, many scientists now feel alienated from the current administration. That’s why Trump’s most recent appointment of accomplished scientist Kelvin Droegemeier to direct the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) was met with praise and sighs of relief. But ahead of Droegemeier’s Senate confirmation hearing, a question remains: can he exert any influence over this administration?
Some past advisors think that will be an uphill battle. “This administration has the potential folly of going down as one of the most anti-science and anti-fact-based policy making White Houses in history,” said Phil Larson, formerly a Senior Advisor with OSTP during the Obama administration.
There is good reason for such a strong statement. In his first 18 months as President, Trump overturned years of policy work rooted in science—namely policies intended to protect the nation from a changing climate. Trump’s administration has exited the Paris Agreement, rolled back fuel economy standards, and attempted to slash science funding. It has also appointed climate skeptics to lead the EPA, the Department of Energy, and NASA.
Staffing at OSTP is down by more than 70% compared to peak Obama-era employment. The Director position is the most glaring of these lingering vacancies. The OSTP Director, also known as the President’s Science Advisor, is commonly a liaison to agencies, departments, and Congress on behalf of science. If confirmed, Droegemeier will fill this role previously held by physicist John Holdren.
Droegemeier is an extreme weather expert from the University of Oklahoma. But he is also a long-serving member of the National Science Board, which advises the National Science Foundation. His appointment has pleased the scientific community because of his credentials as both a scientist and science advocate.
“The science advisor is kind of the node of the science community in the White House, and can get those feelers out there to get the experts,” says Larson. “Having those relationships is key and I think this guy does.”
In Oklahoma, Droegemeier was a vocal proponent for science funding. He argued for reducing administrative workload among researchers, a position that earned him praise from fellow scientists. This advocacy will be crucial in his new appointment. He will be expected to work with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to appropriate sufficient funds towards scientific research—the crux of OSTP function.
“You can’t have a policy and then not fund it,” says Larson. “Then it’s not really a policy.”
While in Washington, Larson also worked for OMB. He is confident in Droegmeier’s credentials, but awaits the answer to a crucial question, “What influence does he have on the policy making apparatus of the White House?”
Previously, Droegemeier used his influence to successfully vouch for Jim Bridenstine, administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, when many opposed Bridenstine’s appointment as NASA Administrator. This level of influence speaks to Droegemeier’s credibility with the public and media, but it remains unclear whether his influence will be potent with the current administration.
Asked whether he expects the appointment to significantly affect policy, Larson couldn’t help but use the Obama administration as a barometer.
“President Obama is like a true geek,” said Larson. “He also understood the importance to our national effort that science and technology have.” Larson claims that, under Obama’s leadership, OSTP always had a seat at the table.
“So you’d go to national security meeting, you’d go to the Office of Public Engagement or a White House communications meeting, and they knew the President cared about science and technology,” says Larson, adding that the same no longer appears to hold true. “It would be a hindrance if they’re not supporting OSTP or having it as part of the critical mass of policy making. Yeah, we can still have those meetings, but the question of what gets done, I don’t know.”
So how can we know what to expect from Droegemeier and the current administration? Assuming Droegemeier is confirmed for the congressionally-mandated position, his utility is largely out of anyone’s hands but Trump’s. Nevertheless, the confirmation hearing may provide some valuable insights.
“Confirmations are useful,” said Larson. “It’s where you look under the hood, kick the tires, see what’s someone’s mettle is, their positions on things, and how they’ll represent facts.”
He stresses the importance of hearing a nominee’s goals and stances on the record—especially when they diverge from the administration’s.
“Rhetoric out of the White House matters. Words matter,” says Larson. “Him being able to speak his mind on the facts of the matter, and ensuring he has a seat at the table to say those facts both in closed doors but also publicly, I think, is critical to the success of any science advisor.”
Even if Droegemeier manages to get Trump’s ear, he cannot immediately impact the President’s budget. The fact that the OSTP director seat has remained vacant so long has impaired science advocacy—government agencies are already developing the budget for 2020 fiscal year. According to Larson, “It’s two years in, and so he’s already playing from behind.”
Despite numerous obstacles, such as OSTP attrition and administration track record, Larson is hopeful that Droegemeier can be a voice to prevent actions that would affect citizens, the nation, and the planet. In contrast to the slow crawl of Washington operations, global crises like nuclear disasters or pandemic diseases require quick action and scientific expertise. The rapid pace of innovation can also move on the heels of government policy. At Trump’s discretion, a laudable appointment may prove meaningless. But with potential for either innovation or crisis, the nomination may instead prove meaningful—for better or for worse.
By Max Levy
Phil Larson now works as Chief of Staff and Assistant Dean at the University of Colorado Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Science.