Ten months into his presidency, Donald Trump has yet to name a science advisor. It’s the longest amount of time a modern president has taken to nominate someone to the position since at least 1976, when Congress established the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Other key positions in the White House’s OSTP also remain vacant. That worries members of Congress and science experts, adding to concerns that the president is less than friendly to science.
To address this gap in the administration, a group of Democratic senators sent a letter last week to President Trump urging him to appoint “well-qualified” science and technology experts to fill these positions (see “The Gaping, Dangerous Hole in the Trump Administration”).
The authors note that OSTP currently has fewer than 50 people on its staff, down from more than 130 in the past. Meanwhile, they say numerous issues in the news during the first nine months of Trump’s presidency could have benefited from expert advice, like climate change, the Iran nuclear deal, and North Korea’s nuclear program.
Members of the Senate Committee on Health Education, Labor and Pensions also held a hearing last week on the potential of gene-editing technology in medicine, another topic the administration has yet to weigh in on.
Kumar Garg, a senior fellow at the Society for Science and the Public, says the science advisor position is similar to any other senior position inside the White House.
“Why do you have an economic advisor? Why do you have a national security advisor? It is the belief that this cross-cutting topic is fundamentally important to national priorities,” says Garg, who spent nearly eight years in various positions in OSTP under the Obama administration, most recently as assistant director for learning and innovation.
Garg says the opioid epidemic is another area that could benefit from a science advisor, who might suggest new research and development programs for curbing abuse or finding new alternatives to opioids.
During Obama’s tenure, Garg says, OSTP was involved in responding to emergencies like the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, creating new programs like the BRAIN Initiative at the National Institutes of Health, and developing policies on emerging technologies like artificial intelligence. OTSP and its director also helped advise Obama on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, when a BP-operated wellhead spewed oil and methane gas into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days in 2010.
So far, Garg says, it’s hard to know what OSTP’s priorities are under Trump, especially in light of major proposed spending cuts to federal science budgets.
President George W. Bush’s OSTP director, John Marburger, started in September 2001, after Bush took office in January that year. Obama appointed his advisor, John Holdren, before he was inaugurated.
Once the president puts forth a nomination for the science advisor, the Senate must confirm it. But there’s no indication from the Trump administration that this will happen anytime soon.