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Will Science Have a Seat at President Trump’s Table?

Every president since FDR has had a science advisor. Trump has yet to name one or indicate leading candidates.
January 17, 2017

There may still be one person who can prevent Donald Trump, denier of the scientific consensus on global warming and vaccines and rejecter of other apparent truths, from being an “anti-science” president.

The question is whether he will find such a person. Trump hasn’t yet named a science advisor, and his team has given no indication of who it might end up being.

Every president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has had a science advisor, though the influence of the position, and the extent to which it has kept presidents from neglecting or misusing empirical evidence, has varied considerably throughout the years. Richard Nixon even got rid of the position for a time. John Holdren, President Obama’s science advisor, has had much more influence in the White House than did George W. Bush’s advisor, John Marburger.

At this point in 2009, Holdren had already been on the job for weeks. Trump isn’t necessarily behind schedule, though—George W. Bush didn’t name Marburger until June 2001.

Illustration by Victor Kerlow

Nonetheless, the sooner Trump appoints a science advisor the better, says Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Issues pertaining to science, technology, and engineering “are more embedded, in more policies, than ever before,” and scientific thinking is vital if a crisis arises, argues Holt, who previously served in Congress for 16 years. He says it’s in the president’s best interest to have a strong science advisor who is “at the table with the senior advisors for national security, for economics, and for domestic policy.”

Trump is under no legal obligation to appoint a cabinet-level science advisor like Holdren has been for Obama. The president must name a director for the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which Congress created in 1976 to advise the president and coördinate scientific and technological initiatives between government agencies. After that it’s up to him to decide how much “stature and access” to give the position, says Robert Atkinson, founder and president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a nonpartisan technology policy think tank. And it’s unclear whether Trump would marginalize OSTP and even how much he cares about advancing science and technology policy.

Obama cared “as much as a president can care about this stuff,” Atkinson says. Obama made Holdren—who has engineering and physics degrees from MIT—part of his inner circle for many policy decisions. And with Holdren as director, the OSTP took on a broad range of projects, from climate change research to the Precision Medicine Initiative, which is aimed at developing new drugs and therapies that are tailored to individual patients’ bodies. It also coördinated efforts by multiple government agencies to help make the U.S. more competitive in the area of high-performance computing.

Whatever Trump ends up doing with his OSTP, we should hope he sees scientific thinking and evidence as assets, not impediments. Science is “the best protection a president has against being fooled, or fooling himself, so I hope he’ll find a science advisor who will help convince him of that,” says Holt. “Reality has a way of exposing decisions that aren’t made on the basis of the best evidence.”

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