The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has been headless since Donald Trump moved into the White House. The vacancy is a problem: Trump appears to know even less about science than he knows about diplomacy or the legislative process. Many have called on Trump to hire a science adviser—could that prevent the president from making such uninformed science policies?
It can’t. There’s no scientist alive who can fix the underlying problem, because the underlying problem is Trump himself. And no sane, credible scientist worth having in the position would take it, anyway. Why would anyone?
The only man who could begin to answer that question died six years ago.
Five months into the George W. Bush administration, scientists were getting pretty testy—the president hadn’t nominated a science adviser, leading to widespread suspicion that the federal budget for research and development would have been more generous if a scientist had been around to whisper sweet RFAs into Bush’s ear.
One of the people urging Bush to nominate a science adviser was Jack Marburger, a respected physicist, administrator, and registered Democrat. In June 2001, Marburger got an improbable call—from the president. Bush wanted Marburger as his science adviser.
Marburger had left himself little choice. He had so publicly urged Bush to name someone, anyone, to the post, that refusal would make him seem a hypocrite or even disloyal to his country. Marburger also had a history of cleaning up messes. After a tritium leak at the Brookhaven National Laboratory terrified and infuriated Long Islanders, the lab called on Marburger to remedy the leak while rebuilding trust with the local community. Everyone agreed that Marburger’s management of the situation was miraculous. So Marburger agreed to try to work another miracle under Bush.
People who knew Marburger say that he never regretted his decision to join the Bush administration. If that’s true, he was either an extraordinary civil servant or a glutton for punishment. From Marburger’s first day in office, the administration sidelined and marginalized him. It stripped Marburger of the assistant to the president title, which is normally held by the OSTP director. It was more than an insult—it made the job nearly impossible.
“If you’re not an assistant to the president, you can’t write a memo to the president or get an appointment with the president except with the cooperation of someone who has the assistant rank. You don’t have direct access,” says John Holdren, who served as the head of the office under President Barack Obama (and was afforded the assistant title).
Then, when the Sept. 11 attacks necessitated renovations to the building that housed OSTP, Bush moved Marburger and his staff into rented commercial space, two blocks away and out of the orbit of anyone with real power in the administration.
But the worst part of Marburger’s tenure was the fact that the Bush administration called upon him to publicly defend Bush’s indefensible science policy positions. For example, when Bush announced his support for teaching “intelligent design” in schools, it fell to Marburger to make the suggestion palatable to both the rabidly anti-evolution members of Bush’s base and Marburger’s own colleagues in the science community. He was asked to justify Bush’s do-nothing climate change policies, which he did by blaming the supposed futility of mitigation and the inadequacy of clean energy technology. He was even called in to explain Bush’s fondness for abstinence-only education to Congress. Marburger fought his boss’s corner at great reputational cost. Many of Marburger’s peers called on him to resign in protest. When he didn’t, they turned on him. The prevailing view was that Marburger had abandoned his principles. The Harvard cognitive psychologist Howard Gardner called Marburger a “prostitute” on NPR.
Marburger went to his grave in 2011 knowing that many of his peers agreed with Gardner, even if they didn’t say so out loud. Holdren wasn’t one of those people.
“I’m embarrassed to be one of the people who said Jack Marburger should have resigned when he was not given the assistant to the president rank,” Holdren told me. That’s because on his first day in office, Holdren found out that Marburger had been doing extraordinary work that the public didn’t know about. (Marburger did this, by the way, while being treated for cancer.) Rather than resigning after being frozen out, Marburger learned that he could make progress on technology issues in the national security space, much of which, according to Holdren, didn’t require access to the president and in which progress is often kept under wraps.
“Marburger was willing to take the slings and arrows,” says Holdren, “because he knew that if he left, the job might fall to a less capable person, and the national interest would suffer.”
Jack Marburger martyred himself for science and for his country. From the outside, he looked like a traitor who loaned his scientific credibility to an administration that exploited it to undermine science policy and even the legitimacy of science itself. His accomplishments were kept secret, and he was hung out to dry for the mistakes of others. The unfortunate scientist who agrees to work with Donald Trump can expect even worse.
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Make no mistake: Every president needs a science adviser. That became painfully clear when Harry Truman was forced to referee physics disputes between Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller while they built the first hydrogen bomb. Both men knew infinitely more about nuclear reactions than the Missouri farmer who oversaw them. Later, Dwight Eisenhower was forced to admit the same following the launch of Sputnik and resulting arguments within the Pentagon. Since Eisenhower named the first official science adviser in 1957, the demand for technical expertise in the White House has only become more urgent.
It’s tiring just to listen to Holdren rattle off the adviser’s list of responsibilities. Manage NASA strategy and budget. Work with the Office of Management and Budget on federal research and development investments. Deal with climate change, both in terms of mitigating it and diffusing the controversy. Testify before Congress. Oversee the National Science Foundation. Execute whatever the classified work on national security and homeland security might be. Forge science and technology cooperation agreements with Brazil, China, India, Russia, and Korea. Support the State Department on other science-related initiatives. Put the president in contact with top outside experts when necessary. All in all, Holdren worked in approximately 70 different science fields at any given time.
Holdren was also working for a man who did his homework. I spoke with several members of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology under Obama, and they were all impressed—sometimes shocked—at Obama’s level of understanding of the issues and his expectations for their work.
William Press, a computational biologist who served on Obama’s PCAST, talks about the “Obama look,” the president’s expression of disappointment.
“It was never harsh words,” remembers Press. “The look meant, ‘Hey guys, this is the big leagues. I expect you to do your homework before you talk to me.’ ”
And Obama listened to PCAST. Members of the committee recall that Obama’s climate plans were tilted toward mitigation in his early years, and it fell to the administration’s scientists to convince the president that some harms were unavoidable. It was already time for adaptation. Could Trump take advice like that from a group of people who were appointed because they know things that Trump doesn’t?
To see what happens when a president doesn’t have a science adviser he trusts enough to learn from, consider Bush’s August 2001 decision to bar federal funding for research on new stem cell lines. In his prime-time address—yes, there was a time when stem cell research was a prime-time issue—Bush assured the country that there were already more than 60 existing stem cell lines available for groundbreaking research, so his order would not impede scientific progress. Scientists, lawyers, and ethicists still debate the wisdom of Bush’s decision, but he was indisputably wrong on the facts. There were, at best, 21 stem cell lines available when he made his speech, and the paucity of lines did limit research.
The Oval Office is surrounded by interest groups who would sculpt the facts to fit their agendas, and the president desperately needs an expert who can de-spin the facts. Climate change and ecological expert Rosina Bierbaum played that role for President Bill Clinton, and she had agreed to continue under Bush until he found a replacement, hoping she could influence a man who came into office showing little interest in climate change and other science policy issues. As it happened, she had virtually no access to the president.
“If he had asked, we had great people who knew about stem cells and how many lines there were. Instead, they got basic facts wrong,” says Bierbaum.
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Trump would have the same problem with a science adviser that I would have with a butler: What are you supposed to do with him? Would Trump listen and attempt to learn from his expert appointee? Would having a science adviser help to unravel some of the misconceptions our president holds about science?
Almost certainly not. Historically speaking, Edward David, science adviser to President Richard Nixon, found that he spent a worrying amount of time trying to debunk the cockamamie theories Nixon adopted, like Nixon’s belief that he could “cure” cancer with a Los Alamos–style program.
“[I]t’s not difficult to bamboozle a president, but it’s very difficult to de-bamboozle him, which I tried to do and it didn’t work,” David later said in 2005, modifying a quote from John Maynard Keynes.
Conspiracy and quackery are two areas where Trump might at least contend for the No. 1 spot among past American presidents. His opinions generally seem to be informed by some combination of whim, gut instinct, emotion, and whoever talked to him last, and this is particularly true when it comes to science. Trump sets little store by facts, instead often creating his own reality, one where climate change is an overblown threat not worthy of our time, and vaccines still might cause autism despite mountains of evidence to the contrary.
For just one moment, imagine having the job of teaching Trump why almost every idea he holds about science and technology is incorrect. Yeah, right.
It doesn’t help that the political right has a history of fighting with science advisers, which could pave the way for a contentious and unproductive relationship. Nixon’s first science adviser testified against Nixon’s supersonic flight initiative before Congress. Tricky Dick eventually chased two science advisers out of the White House and disbanded OSTP altogether in 1973. (Congress eventually reinstated the office.) George Keyworth, President Ronald Reagan’s science adviser, didn’t hear about the ill-fated “Star Wars” missile defense plan until four days before it became public, leaving him no time to intervene. The government eventually spent $239 billion making little headway on the project. And even with Marburger’s most valiant efforts and self-flagellation, the Bush administration is still responsible for politicizing and undermining facts in several scientific arenas.
It appears Trump is searching for a scientist who shares his views—most importantly his denial of the scientific consensus on climate change. Two of the names that have surfaced in Trump’s search are David Gelernter, a Yale computer scientist who says he hasn’t seen “convincing evidence” of man-made climate change, and Princeton physicist William Happer, who has said that the benefits of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide would outweigh the harms.
“Trump clearly needs someone who shares or is at least comfortable with his views,” says Al Teich, a former director of science and policy programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science and currently a professor at George Washington University. “But that person is unlikely to be a mainstream scientist. Would anyone with a major scientific position take the job?”
I couldn’t find anyone who knew why neither Gelernter and Happer has been appointed yet. Perhaps someone told them the story of Jack Marburger. Or perhaps our president just doesn’t care that much about creating an illusion that he is receiving counsel on science and hasn’t bothered to offer the position yet for that reason.
If other Trump administration appointments are any indication, it’s almost guaranteed that a Trump science appointee could be more of a net negative than a positive. Remember, Trump appointed Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency despite his history of attempting to sue the agency into oblivion. He placed Rick Perry in charge of the Department of Energy, even though as a candidate Perry said he’d abolish the agency. As much as scientists might hope that having a science adviser would make our president value science, we already know that he doesn’t. We would do well to dispatch the belief that this appointment would substantially change that.
Consider the possible scenarios: If Trump appoints a science adviser who is committed to the facts, it seems unlikely that the adviser would be able to do much. At best, the appointee may be able to dial back the worst of Trump’s plans, while Trump benefits from the perception that he is informed. At worst, there will be no dialing back, but Trump would still get cursory accolades, and the adviser would be skewered by the scientific community for being complicit in terrible policy.
There is almost no reason why a scientifically literate person would accept such a job. After all, to do it well, the science adviser would need the trust of both the president and the scientific community, whom he or she would regularly need to call on for help. There may not be a person who fulfills both criteria and is willing to be a martyr and potentially destroy his or her career working for Trump. In my research, I spoke with a dozen scientists and science policy experts. They all agreed that Trump needs a science adviser. But none could name a good candidate who would likely take the job, and most of them laughed when I asked whether they would accept the job themselves.
It’s funny because it’s scary. A position of crucial importance in past administrations has been rendered pointless, because the president—the man with the power to bumble the world into a nuclear war—lacks the capacity to recognize the limits of his own knowledge. Trump doesn’t need a science adviser—he needs an aptitude test.