Every U.S. President who has served the country over the last two decades has had a science advisor to help him make informed decisions about science policies and other matters that called for scientific expertise. However, more than six months into his presidency, the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump is yet to appoint a science advisor. What is even more concerning is that the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) currently has only 35 people. Moreover, several key positions are vacant, putting several decisions involving science experts in limbo. That Trump is displaying no definitive signs of staffing up key positions in the OSTP has academics in the country worried. Without any science experts, the country might find it difficult to respond to any crisis and may lose its leadership in science and technology.
Donald Trump’s reputation of being anti-science long preceded his election as the President of the U.S., the country that is considered a global leader in science and technology. During the Presidential elections, his remarks about global warming being an assumption “based on faulty science and manipulated data” and accusations of “doctor-inflicted autism” shocked the academics. It was during this time that he also indicated that he would pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement and stop immigrants from entering the U.S. This had led many to believe that Trump would be the most anti-science President the U.S. could ever have. His actions after taking the office left no doubt among the scientific and non-scientific community that he was far from being pro-science. His immigration ban left students and academics wondering whether they should pursue their career in the U.S. Shortly after, the blueprint of his first federal budget proposed massive cuts in science that were particularly targeted at major science agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). And then he fulfilled the promise he had made during his election campaigns and pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement. These actions can be extremely damaging the U.S. leadership in science and technology.
When Barack Obama was serving as the President, he had 135 people in the OSTP, which according to Obama’s then science adviser, John Holdren, was an indication that Obama was deeply interested in advancing science and technology during his administration. Now Trump’s shrunk OSTP office consists of merely 35 people whose expertise in science is not called on when making science-related decisions. In the absence of a director of the OSTP, according to a Trump aide, “a smaller, more collaborative staff” is working in areas related to science, technology, and military services. However, this staff many not be able to provide the President enough support and expertise; in fact, they do not seem to have much of a say in the decision-making process. The repercussions of this could be really harmful for the nation.
Holdren discusses in an article why having a science advisor who is a senior scientist and has direct access to the President is vital. Stressing on the importance of science and technology in making several policy making decisions, he lists the three primary responsibilities of a science advisor: 1] providing relevant scientific facts to the President, 2] helping the President develop policies for science and technology, and 3] representing the President’s science and technology priorities and policies in interactions with all government-affiliated people, the scientific community, and the public. A President has to look into several issues such as deciding on the public-private-academic partnerships that could accelerate scientific progress, making public healthcare related decisions, understanding the technology used by terrorists, and so on. Without the support of a strong staff comprising of science and technology experts, he would be on the back foot.
If it is not already too late, Trump should appoint a science advisor who has experience, unbiased opinions about science, and the ability to restore the OSTP as the think tank of science and technology. The U.S. has been one of the leading nations when it comes to investment in science, volume of publication, and innovation. However, without informed decision-making, scientific progress in the U.S. might get impaired. Who knows, China, which is threatening to overtake the U.S., might just get ahead of it in scientific and technological advancement.