With Key Staff Missing In Washington, Can Science Policy Move Ahead?

12:23 minutes

N. F. Photography, via Shutterstock

Six months into the new administration, there are reportedly 46 unfilled science positions that require a Senate confirmation. They include directors for NASA and NOAA, as well as a presidential science advisor. At the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the agency has been reorganized and the staff has been whittled from 100 to 35. Physicist Neal Lane, former science advisor to President Bill Clinton, and reporter Sara Reardon from Nature News discuss how science policy might move ahead with these vacancies.

[Here’s what to expect from the Trump administration’s environmental policy.]

Segment Guests

Neal Lane

Neal Lane is a former science advisor to President Clinton, and senior fellow in science and technology policy at Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

Sara Reardon

Sara Reardon is a biomedical research and policy reporter for Nature News in Washington, D.C..

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re six months into the Trump administration, with some key science positions unfilled, like the directors for NASA and in NOAA. One important job was filled today. Georgia Public Health Commissioner Brenda Fitzgerald was chosen as the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But there are still 45 Senate-confirmed science positions that still sit unfilled, according to reports. The staff at the Office of Science and Technology Policy– OSTP– has been reduced down to 1/3. And one of the biggest unknowns is, who will become the science adviser? The person who fills this role will have a direct line to the president.

How can, or will, science policy move forward with these vacancies in top spots, and what’s the hold up? My next guests are here to talk us and walk us through this. Neal Lane is a former science adviser to President Clinton. He’s also Senior Fellow in Science and Technology Policy at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston. Welcome back to Science Friday, Neal.

NEAL LANE: Thank you, Ira, very nice to be on your show.

IRA FLATOW: Sara Reardon is a biomedical research and policy reporter at Nature News in Washington. Sara, welcome to Science Friday.

SARA REARDON: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Let me ask you first, can you give us a quick background about Brenda Fitzgerald, Dr. Fitzgerald?

SARA REARDON: Yes, she is the Health Commissioner– was the Health Commissioner– in Georgia which, of course, is where the CDC is based. And she was an OBGYN by training, and people seem to like her quite a lot. She’s gotten a lot of public health experts commenting this morning that this is a very good, solid choice for this position.

IRA FLATOW: Are you surprised at that choice?

SARA REARDON: Well, it’s been kind of a mix so far among the science positions that Trump has appointed. He’s had some people that are very popular, very well qualified. For instance, he kept on Francis Collins as Director of the National Institutes of Health. He’s a geneticist. He’s been director under Obama, is very popular in Congress. And I think a lot of people think he’s done a really good job.

On the other hand, a lot of people bristled at the appointment of people like Rick Perry, Texas governor, as the Department of Energy head, whereas that person before had been a physicist. And Perry didn’t necessarily have the same scientific expertise. So I think it’s been a bit of a mixed bag, as far as the scientific background of people that Trump’s appointed.

IRA FLATOW: Neal, let’s talk about the– not just the director, there are other key appointments left unfilled.

NEAL LANE: Well, I agree about keeping on Francis Collins. I mean, he was also head of the International Human Genome Project back in the Clinton days, and has been an outstanding public servant. And also France Cordova continues, I believe, at National Science Foundation– NSF director. Has a term of six years.

But of course, the president can make changes if he wishes to do so. So I think the situation is mixed, I agree. And there are some very good people staying. Unfortunately, there are still people in OSTP– scientists who will continue to do the work of the office in spite of the fact that the three scientists in the science division have moved on to other positions, that I understand there was a plan to move some time ago.

But that office is pretty thin right now, as you point out. So it’s a key office in the White House, and it’s a key interface for many of these other agencies. And that’s a problem for them right now.

IRA FLATOW: Why do you think that no science adviser has been appointed at this point?

NEAL LANE: I don’t know, of course, what’s in the president’s mind. We know– publicly, at least– that two, and perhaps more, have been interviewed and have spoken with the president. But he did not appoint them, and many months have gone on since that time. So I’m not sure whether the issue is they simply do not have the kind of background that he’s interested in, if the president wants to focus in particular areas.

I understand right now there are priorities placed on cybersecurity, that’s understandable– information technology. And It could be that he’s looking for someone with particular niche expertise, but there could also be other issues that have to do with politics or ideology. I simply don’t know.

IRA FLATOW: Sara, what about the other people who are still in these positions that are still open? Not at the highest level. There are still key appointments missing.

SARA REARDON: Well, yeah, as you said–

NEAL LANE: You mean in– sorry.



SARA REARDON: As you mentioned in your intro, NASA; as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration– NOAA– which does a lot of the weather tracking, among other things; US Geological Survey also don’t have directors. Neither do many of the other agencies have a lot of the key science positions filled.

For instance, the Department of Energy, as I mentioned before; the Environmental Protection Agency; DoD– the Department of Defense– they all have science advisers. Within those, advisers to the directors of those agencies. And most of those positions are unfilled as well, at the moment.

IRA FLATOW: Neal, these the issues that might come up, or have come up, that really need some advice that’s missing?

NEAL LANE: Well, so many of the policy issues that the president deals with on a daily basis. But also, the more strategic ones have science or technological implications. And right now, it’s just not clear where he would be getting advice. So even things like the immigration ban, that has implications for American science and the enterprise. So not just the research side, but also in the private sector.

So it would be very good if the president had access to information about those implications of such policies. Now, things that are going on in the Environmental Protection Agency and the rollback of many of the regulations, or the attempt to roll them back– methane being one of the more recent ones.

Those policy decisions have significant implications for energy, of course, and the environment, and workforce issues and the economy and so forth, to the extent that science and technology is important. And it is in those cases. The president needs somebody he can get a straight story from. I mean, someone who’s not in any way biased by the fact that they run an agency or they have a particular constituency to worry about.

He needs somebody he can trust, who will give him the straight story about what the science is and what the technical capability is, and then move one way or another.

IRA FLATOW: Sara, so where is President Trump getting his science advice from now?

SARA REARDON: I don’t think people really know. According to a lot of the folks I’ve spoken to at OSTP or who have recently left OSTP, he’s not been getting a lot of it from them. There have been a lot of rumors and speculation that Silicon Valley capital investor Peter Thiel– he’s been an informal, semi-formal adviser to the president throughout his campaign and through the transition.

A lot of people have said that he has got the president’s ear in a lot of science-related issues. And the one indication that that’s true is that the one person who has been appointed by Trump to the Office of Science and Technology Policy was Peter Thiel’s former chief of staff, a man named Michael Kratsios.

And he is at a mid-level, politically-appointed position right now. He’s the Deputy Chief Technology Officer, and that’s the only person that Trump has put in. So we don’t really know. I mean, he’s probably talking with folks from industries, probably talking with his political advisers.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, Neal, while some of these agencies wait for the director to be named, there are acting officers. It’s not completely empty. Can a non-permanent acting officer suffice?

NEAL LANE: Well, it’s a different kind of a job. There are really top-notch people in all these agencies who take on these acting roles in a time when the position is open. And of course, they keep the trains running on time and make sure the agency is following the rules and delivering on its products.

But you really can’t expect somebody in an acting position to take initiative, to push forward on policy directions that he or she may feel are important. Even those that have been fully vetted inside the agency– are teed up, ready to go– the person in an acting position understands that he or she’s not really expected to do that. At least, that’s my view. There’s some really good people, but it’s a very different job.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think that these slow appointments are a way of signaling a disinterest in science by the administration?

NEAL LANE: Well, the president’s not said a lot about science. When he was running, he didn’t have much to say about science except science that’s politically polarized– climate change, for example. And he hasn’t said much since.

I can only guess– because I don’t have inside information– that the White House has been rather distracted by a number of other issues, and they’re very important also. And it shouldn’t necessarily be interpreted as anti-science in some general sense, but rather– it’d be pretty clear that science is not a particularly high priority at this time from the White House.

IRA FLATOW: So you’re just saying they’re disorganized? If they forget to make a reservation at the G20 meeting for a hotel, why should you expect them to be more organized?

NEAL LANE: Well, you can’t do everything.


IRA FLATOW: It sounds funny, but it’s not really a laughing matter, Sara, is it?

SARA REARDON: Well, no. There’s always the possibility that something is going to happen. The thing everyone’s concerned about is that there’s going to be a disaster– another Gulf oil spill or an Ebola outbreak, or something like that– where the president’s not going to necessarily have someone to turn to for scientific advice.

And just to add on to what Dr. Lane was just saying, with the slowness to appoint an adviser, it’s a thing across the government. Trump has only appointed a very small fraction of the total number of people in any area. It’s not necessarily science that’s being singled out.

And that’s been the case on his advisory councils, as well. If there were such a disaster, he would have to weigh advice from national security experts, from economists, from political experts, as well as a scientist, and make a decision based off of those.

But it’s not clear how many of those people are in place right now, and I think that there’s concern that there would be knee-jerk or ill-informed decision made unless they’ve got some people in there who really know what they’re talking about.

IRA FLATOW: Last quiz question, Neal. What about if the president appoints a science adviser who has questionable views about climate change? Would that really set a theme?

NEAL LANE: Well, of course that would upset many people in the science community. But I think John Holdren– President Obama’s science adviser who’s served longer than any previous science advisors and is an expert in the areas of energy and climate change, and also national security and now many other things– but I recall him on the public record just saying, look, it is so important you get a science adviser who understands science, at least.

And the importance of the federal investment in research, and so forth. So even if they take a different position, we can live with that.

IRA FLATOW: Neal Lane and Sara Reardon, thank you very much for taking time to be with us today.

NEAL LANE: Thank you!

IRA FLATOW: We’re going to take a break.

SARA REARDON: Thank you.

NEAL LANE: It was a pleasure.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. We’re going to talk about Skyping a scientist, so stay with us. We’ll be right back after this break.

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