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Rewriting Life

The Gaping, Dangerous Hole in the Trump Administration

Without science and technology advisors in the White House, President Trump could struggle to respond to crises.

It is beginning to look as if President Donald Trump is willing to govern without any in-house science advisors, a decision that could hinder not only his agenda but also the White House’s ability to respond in times of crisis (see “Will Science Have a Seat at President Trump’s Table?”).

A report last week that the science division of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is now completely unstaffed is only the latest indication that the Trump White House is not concerned that science and technology experts be part of its day-to-day decision-making. All of the senior science positions in the OSTP are unfilled, and it is still without a director. Though an administration official tells MIT Technology Review that the office has 13 staff PhDs working primarily on science and national security issues, Trump’s OSTP is currently made up of only 35 total staffers, compared with over 100 under Obama.

Congress created the OSTP in 1976. Its purpose is to give the president advice independent of the various government agencies that also deal with science and technology policy, and to coordinate interagency action toward achieving the White House’s policy goals. Among other things, Obama’s OSTP, led by John Holdren, spearheaded the administration’s biomedical research initiatives focused on cancer, neuroscience, and personalized medicine. It worked with the Federal Aviation Administration to draft and enact new regulations that opened up the U.S. market for commercial drones. And Obama relied heavily on Holdren to advise him personally.

Some of Obama’s science and technology initiatives, including the Precision Medicine Initiative and the Cancer Moonshot, are still expected to get funding from Congress, but the degree to which Trump’s OSTP has taken over the management of these projects is not clear. 

The law that created the OSTP obligates the president to name a director, a position the Senate must confirm. Trump has not done that yet, and there are no indications that he will anytime soon. The administration has been slow to hire in other areas too, and by historical standards he still has some time; President George W. Bush’s OSTP director, John Marburger, didn’t start until September 2001. Obama, on the other hand, appointed Holdren before inauguration.

If or when Trump does name a director for the OSTP, though, it will be up to him how much stature and influence to give the position. Holdren, unlike Marburger, held the additional title of assistant to the president. Without that distinction, a science advisor will struggle to be effective, says Holdren.

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“An assistant to the president can send the president a memo at any time, and can get a meeting with the president anytime, and so that person is able to call things to the president’s attention rather than waiting for the president to ask a question,” he says.

Holdren says he built OSTP’s staff up from the 45 people he inherited to 135 because Obama was “so interested in and enthusiastic about the ways that science and technology could inform his agenda.” Obama leaned on Holdren and other experts in the OSTP during times of crisis, including the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which began in 2014. Holdren’s OSTP also worked closely with the White House Office of Management and Budget to develop the president’s annual budget. He says a lack of science and technology advice is “reflected rather conspicuously” in Trump’s budget, which proposed deep cuts in spending on science and medical research. 

Having scientific and technological expertise in the White House not only ensures that the president has a timely resource during emergencies, but also the ability to organize the many agencies and departments relevant to science and technology policy, says Holdren. Without the OSTP, the president would be left having to rely on various cabinet secretaries and department heads, each of which may have their own agenda. The science advisor’s job is to absorb the relevant information and help the president understand it in the context of his own agenda.

But that only works if receiving science advice is on the president’s agenda to begin with.

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