Over six months in office, Donald Trump has yet to name a presidential science adviser, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)—which that person would lead—languishes.
At the end of June, the staffing of its science division vanished as the last few Obama holdovers departed. During the prior administration, OSTP was an exciting, influential agency led for eight years by Assistant to the President John Holdren, who had taken leave from his position as professor of environmental policy at Harvard. It boasted more than a hundred employees, including over fifty policy experts. Now the total staff has fallen below forty, and few experts remain.
With deep roots reaching back sixty years to the Eisenhower Administration and Sputnik, the presidential science adviser and OSTP have been important fixtures in the nation’s capital, coordinating science- and technology-related activities across other agencies and departments, as well as advising US presidents on these matters—for example, on such planet-threatening issues as climate change and nuclear weaponry. It kept them briefed about the scientific content of policy decisions.
By this point in his first term, President Ronald Reagan had selected his science adviser, George Keyworth, a nuclear physicist from Los Alamos National Laboratory who championed his Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”) before Congress. Yale nuclear physicist D. Allan Bromley served in a like capacity under the first President Bush, leading administration efforts to internationalize the ill-fated Superconducting Super Collider before Congress killed the project in 1993.
In the Clinton administration, physicists Jack Gibbons of Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Neal Lane, previously Director of the National Science Foundation, served as able science advisers, advocating research on energy conservation and renewable energy. Physicist John Marburger, formerly director of Brookhaven National Laboratory and before that president of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, capably filled those shoes during the George W. Bush administration, promoting the interagency National Nanotechnology Initiative.
In all of these cases, science had a seat at the White House policymaking table. While presidential decisions might not always have followed this advice, it was at least taken into account along with other, competing political factors and interests.
But in the current dysfunctional Trump regime (I find it hard to call this chaos an “administration”), decisions about policies with major science and technology content—such as climate-change research at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration—are being made without any high-level scientific advice to speak of. This is a dangerous, unprecedented situation (except for a telling 1970s parallel).
When such decisions are left to attorneys, industrialists and military figures, with no input from individuals knowledgeable about science and technology, poor policy often results. For examples, one need only consider the disastrous second term of Richard Nixon, who abolished his science advisory committee in 1973 after its head, former Bell Labs Director of Research Edward David, resigned in protest.
Since stepping in last February, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, previously the Oklahoma Attorney General and an avowed adversary of climate science, has been purging scientists from all corners of the agency. And in June, word spread that 38 members of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors would be dismissed.
That month Trump had made what historians will probably regard as one of the most ill-informed and reckless decisions ever: to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, joining only Nicaragua and Syria in that dubious distinction. Nineteen out of twenty G-20 nations recently reaffirmed that agreement, including China, India and Russia, leaving only the United States (under Trump) as the odd nation out. As far as I can determine, legitimate climate science—not the pseudo-science promulgated by the Heartland Institute and other conservative think tanks—had no input in these decisions. At least nothing like the president’s futile desire to revive the ailing US coal industry. This is a flagrant, likely deliberate omission.
This decision will adversely and perhaps calamitously impact all humanity, the great majority of which supports the Paris Agreement and accepts the consensus climate science supporting it. For a US president to ignore and even impugn this settled science speaks volumes about the “intellectual” atmosphere at the White House. As Lawrence Krauss predicted last December in the New Yorker, the Trump regime is waging a full-scale, broad-based attack on science.
Over 240 years ago, the United States was founded with an appreciation of science, supported by empirical evidence and reasoned argument. Our Founding Fathers revered science. Benjamin Franklin was a leading natural philosopher of his time, honored in Europe as the father of electricity. Thomas Jefferson devoured a library full of books on recent scientific findings. Rejecting so-called authorities from Aristotle to King George to the Pope, they accepted instead the objective facts that could be conclusively demonstrated by experiment, observation and logic.
Is our nation reverting to the political dark ages that came before the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, when a few self-proclaimed authorities served as principal arbiters of the truth? With a president tweeting relentlessly and without regard for supporting evidence, and an alt-right media uncritically accepting and broadcasting his untruths, alternative facts and other trumperies, it surely seems so.
Let there be no doubt: such an unrelenting attack on science as we have recently been experiencing from the Trump regime and acolytes is an attack on reason itself, and on the fundamental principles of the American Republic. The underlying fabric of our fragile experiment in democracy—not just the environment and climate—is likely at stake.