How the White House Lost Its Brains

Failing to appoint scientific advisors to the president is putting national security at risk.

Activists rally on Capitol Hill during the March for Science April 22, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Thousands of people joined a global March for Science with Washington the epicenter of a movement to fight back against what many see as an "assault on facts" by populist politicians. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Activists rally on Capitol Hill during the March for Science April 22, 2017 in Washington, DC. Thousands of people joined a global March for Science with Washington the epicenter of a movement to fight back against what many see as an "assault on facts" by populist politicians. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Four months into office, President Donald Trump has failed to appoint even a single person to a senior level science council, marking the first time in recent history that the White House is without a team of top technical advisors. The last time was when Richard Nixon fired his science advisors for giving him advice he didn’t like and failing to support his missile defense program.

“Who in the hell do these science bastards think they are?” questioned a Nixon White House staffer at the time.

Currently known as the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the panel typically consists of high-level academics, technologists, and other experts, who take time out of their jobs to advise the president on issues ranging from cybersecurity to nuclear physics, in both classified and unclassified reports and meetings.

Yet the current administration hasn’t expressed any interest in appointing new advisors, let alone filling open science and technology positions across government. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which advises the executive branch, is also currently without a director.

The current lack of scientific experts in government is unprecedented in the post-World War II era, according to former government scientists and advisors.

One scientist serving the administration says he sees no indication there will be a new council of advisors, a sentiment backed up by former members of the panel. The current Office of Science and Technology Policy website does not mention the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, one former panel member told Foreign Policy. “From what I’ve heard, there are no plans to reconstitute the office,” the former advisor, who requested anonymity to comment freely, said.

During Barack Obama’s time in the White House, members of the president’s science council included Google executive Eric Schmidt and academic experts in disciplines ranging from physics to biology. Obama appointed his council shortly after being elected, and its members had considerable access to the president.

The Trump White House has appeared so far to distance itself from the scientific community, and has faced criticism for its stance on climate change and proposed cuts to science agencies. The March for Science in April was labeled nonpartisan, but many participants clearly saw it as a way to take aim at the current administration.

For some scientists serving in government, however, the issue has not been interference as much as silence from President Trump and his associates. They don’t get invited up to the West Wing often, and they aren’t sure what they should be doing, or whose direction to take.

“People feel like they’re drifting,” William Happer, a physicist at Princeton University and Trump’s own rumored pick to be science advisor, told FP in a phone interview. “They don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing. They would like to get some leadership soon.”

Most notable is the lack of a director for the Office of Science and Technology Policy, a scientist who normally, though not always, reports directly to the president. The office is authorized to have five presidential appointees and up to four office directors; none of those positions have been filled.

In years past, the science advisor has often had direct access to the president, while simultaneously coordinating science and technology issues across the entire government.

Happer says this problem goes beyond Trump and his team. Officials in Washington don’t have a real taste for hard science, and only hire scientists because they know they must. “It’s like eating your spinach before your ice cream,” he said.

Trump’s failure to appoint scientists could have a detrimental impact on national security, says John Holdren, former director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Holdren directly advised President Obama, and served as the co-chair for the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. “In the national security space, OSTP’s responsibilities are much greater than generally appreciated,” he said in an interview with FP.

A quarter of the floor space in the Office of Science and Technology Policy’s workspace in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building is secured for classified work, or set up to be a sensitive compartmented information facility, also known as a SCIF, Holdren says. In those spaces, scientists work on issues like “intelligence technology, classified space technologies, weapons, defense against weapons of mass destruction, emergency communication abilities,” Holdren said.

Council members get security clearances for their work, if they don’t already have them from their other jobs. “If you think about, the national security space is full of highly technical issues,” he said.

According to Holdren, the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the president’s science council are “joined at the hip” with the National Security Council, and regularly meet with the intelligence community to discuss future and current threats to the nation. During President Obama’s term, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology completed two studies, both classified and unclassified, into the threats presented by cyberattacks and bioengineering.

Holdren’s team finished the study into bio threats late in President Obama’s term, and didn’t get the chance to oversee its influence in policy. “My hope would be that those reports which are on topics which are not partisan in nature … will survive into the Trump administration,” Holdren said. “But again, so many key positions are vacant, so it’s hard to tell at this point.”

While the president has a large team of national security experts to draw on, Holdren insists that the scientific advisors offer a vital resource. “The president needs a source of competent advice and expertise that is independent of the agendas of any department or agency.”

Steve Koonin, a theoretical physicist and currently the director of the Center for Urban Science and Progress at New York University, agreed with this assessment. The lack of science advisors “creates a blind spot in the administration’s ability to understand, anticipate, and manage events,” he said during a phone interview.

The absence of a science advisor and science advisory board would be a “tremendous loss,” said Koonin, a former undersecretary of energy for science.

For example, he says, the president’s science advisors were “instrumental in making exascale computing happen … which is central to U.S. competitiveness and to our defense, intelligence, and security.”

Exascale computing allows for a billion calculations per second — an area the current administration proposed a large increase in funding for in the budget released last week.

“The defense and intelligence technologies are a pretty specialized business,” Koonin said. “It’s really important to have a group of people who are independent but knowledgeable who can give objective opinions.”

There are scientific programs and research plans in place, such as at the JASON defense advisory panel, a group of scientific advisors focused on national security issues, that haven’t been interrupted by the changes in administration. The current administration has met with the group on lower levels, though no meetings have taken place with cabinet level members, said Happer, who has also been a member of the JASONs for three decades.

“I worry more about the short-term things,” Koonin said. “Iran, the Gulf oil spill, the SARS epidemic…. There are all these things that come up suddenly and you need expertise to get through them.”

In Koonin’s time, the Department of Energy laboratories often advised the intelligence community, and he remembered regularly consulting with the president’s science advisors. “Key questions for this administration are, what are their capabilities with respect to nuclear warheads, ballistic missiles, how fast might they be improving to the point it becomes an imminent threat?”

Perhaps the area in most need of scientific advice is climate change, an issue the Trump White House has publicly dismissed. Scott Pruitt, President’s Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency head, is regarded as a close ally of the fossil fuel industry. Department of Energy Chief Rick Perry has said global warming hasn’t been proven. Even CIA Director Mike Pompeo has vocally denounced climate change research.

Happer, who might end up being Trump’s right hand science man, has himself been vilified as a prominent “climate denier.”

He claims that term is ridiculous. “Who denies climate?” he said. “Climate has been with us forever.”

In 1993, William Happer was pushed out of his job as director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, allegedly for angering Al Gore over questioning climate change.

Happer said he would, if back in government, advocate for studying climate change. “If it’s this important, why haven’t we had a public review of it? We have that all the time in defense programs,” he said. “If you’re going to put in a new fighter jet, you have a red team that tries to find something wrong with it.”

In the meantime, however, Happer says he has no idea if he’ll be offered the job, though he confirms he’d accept it. “I do think they do need to start to get people in those positions and to listen to their advice,” he said.

Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/Getty Images

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