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The Executive Branch Needs Science Advisors

March 29, 2018

 

From withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, proposing budget cuts to the NIH, and delaying nominations of key science advisors on the administration, it is not surprising that scientists and President Trump are not on the best terms. A number of top science positions continue to remain vacant under the current administration1, several lacking even a nominee. This issue leads to a dilemma with which scientists must come to terms. Given the reality, that Trump is our president, and has the power to make influential decisions about science policy, including science research funding, controlling carbon emissions, and health care, how should scientists engage, if at all? Is the issue that the administration is anti-science, and is thus dragging its feet to appoint scientists in top positions, or are scientists refusing to take on these roles? If the scientific community decides to remove itself from the conversation surrounding science policy issues with this administration, who will advocate and advise Trump?

 

Science recently performed an informal survey where they asked 45 scientists, who have influenced research policy over the last few decades, whether or not they would consider advising Trump on science policy issues2. Surprisingly, only 9/45 surveyed refused to work with the current administration, either as an advisor, or on a panel. 27 responders said yes, four said maybe, and five are currently serving in an advisory role. The survey further asked how scientists should engage with Trump’s administration, and although more than half would consider advising Trump, responses were nuanced as to how this advising should take place. Some scientists such as Dr. Thomas Coughlin, prominent digital storage analyst, insisted that scientists could engage with Trump while “sticking to our guns” and not sacrificing our principles of evidence-based policy to biased politically motivated policy. Others, such as Dr. David Galas, molecular biologist from Pacific Northwest Research institute, proposed discussing with the current administration why working with scientists is in the best interest for their success, the nation’s economy, healthcare, and security. Importantly, as suggested by Dr. Gigi Gronval, immunologist at Johns Hopkins University, scientists might have to keep the bar low, with the idea that any win is better than no win, or no voice at all.

 

Considering the plethora of policy issues that require scientific expertise, such as the opioid epidemic, CRISPR gene-editing, and the Iran nuclear deal, the vacant seats in the administration are alarming3. Most notably, Trump has not chosen the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), who directly advises the President and senior staff on all scientifically related matters; consequently, the President is currently advised by Michael Kratsios, deputy assistant at OSTP, who does not have a degree in the Physical or Biological Sciences4. Kratsios has a political science degree, and previously served as the chief of staff to Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire and Trump ally. Directors of the OSTP have advised past presidents on biological warfare, climate change, and the Ebola outbreak4.

 

One of the most pressing national issues is the opioid epidemic that killed 42,000 people in 2016. The Director of OSTP could provide advice on the multitude of current legislation addressing everything from increased access of patient information across health care providers (S.1732), limiting the number of opioid drugs approved by the FDA (S.1079) and improving access to addiction treatment (S.2456).

 

The Director of OTSP is appointed in the same way as about 1,200 positions across the government that require Presidential nomination and Senate approval. Once the President provides a nomination, it is referred to the Senate committee(s) with jurisdiction over the agency or department where the nomination has taken place. The committee organizes a hearing to assess the nominee’s skills and policy positions, and recommends the nominee favorably, unfavorably, or with no position. The Senate then holds another hearing and debates until two-thirds of the Senate votes to end the discussion. Subsequently, the Senate votes and if the majority approves the nomination then it is successful5. Aside from the OTSP, many key science positions either await approval of a nominee, or lack nominations altogether including the Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who oversees the protection of wildlife and their habitats, undersecretary positions at the Department of Agriculture, which oversee food safety regulations, and top roles at National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which supervise budget, policy and the future direction1.

While scientists continue voicing their frustrations, educating and engaging communities, and lobbying the legislative branch, scientists should also demand that the top science advisor positions be filled in the administration. Scientists can encourage their peers who are looking to engage with the current administration to do so, not because they necessarily agree or support the administration’s policy positions, but because as Dr. Charles Rice, scientist and moderate Republican from Kansas State University so accurately stated, “You need to be at the table, otherwise you are on the table.”

 

 

 

  1. Partnership for Public Service. “See How Many Key Positions Trump Has Filled so Far.” The Washington Post, WP Company, www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/politics/trump-administration-appointee-tracker/database/?add-filter.

  2. Jeffrey Mervis. Dec. 13, 2017, 2:15 PM, et al. “Would You Advise Trump on Science? Survey Examines Attitudes of U.S. Researchers.” Science | AAAS, 15 Dec. 2017, www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/12/would-you-advise-trump-science-survey-examines-attitudes-us-researchers.

  3. Mullin, Emily. “Still No Science Advisor at the White House.” MIT Technology Review, MIT Technology Review, 27 Nov. 2017, www.technologyreview.com/s/609534/still-no-science-advisor-at-the-white-house/.

  4. Waldman, Scott. “Trump's Science Advisor, Age 31, Has a Political Science Degree.”Scientific American, E&E News, 14 Feb. 2018, www.scientificamerican.co

  5. “Appointment Confirmation Process.” Ballotpedia, ballotpedia.org/Appointment_confirmation_process

 

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