Today the U.S. Senate held a nomination hearing for Kelvin Droegemeier, whom Pres. Donald Trump has proposed as head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Trump nominated the meteorologist three weeks ago, after leaving the position vacant for 19 months. Many high-profile scientists, including John Holdren, who was Pres. Barack Obama’s senior science advisor for eight years, say Droegemeier is a terrific choice. He is vice president for research at the University of Oklahoma. He served on the National Science Board, which oversees the National Science Foundation, under presidents Obama and George W. Bush. And most recently he was the Oklahoma Secretary of Science and Technology.
Droegemeier could bring some sane advice to the Trump administration on a host of issues, from climate change to cybersecurity (two topics for which the administration has ignored facts). More fundamentally, he can petition the Oval Office and Congress to protect healthy research funding, and fight against the silencing of scientists in federal agencies, redacting scientific terms from reports and letting corporations draft policy.
For any of that to happen, however, Droegemeier has to find a way to get Trump and his top aides to listen to him. He should first ask the chief executive to name him as an assistant to the president, giving him direct access if Trump does not offer to do so up front. Every head of OSTP has been given this “science advisor” designation since Congress established office in 1976—except when George W. Bush withheld that title from John Marburger and told him he should report to the White House chief of staff.
Droegemeier might indeed want to research how Marburger, who passed away in 2011, succeeded in his job.* Marburger was reportedly summoned to the White House several times a week even though Bush was generally uninterested, if not hostile, toward science. In a 2002 interview with Scientific American Marburger said, “When the president needs science advice on a matter where science plays an important role in the decision, I’m present. I’m there. I’m part of the team that briefs him on the issues.”
Droegemeier could certainly try to engage Trump on important science-based issues, such as opioid addiction. Or he might have luck trying several seemingly nonscience avenues to get the president’s attention and respect. Federal spending is one. In 2017, climate- and weather-related disasters, his forte, cost the U.S. some $306 billion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the highest one-year tab ever. That might help him influence Trump on climate issues.
Competitiveness could be a way into boosting research budgets. In a 2017 op-ed in the Des Moines Register, Droegemeier and co-author Daniel Reed wrote smartphones, online shopping, safe air travel, advanced medical imaging and numerous other capabilities “have been made possible by scientific and engineering research conducted in our nation’s research universities and national laboratories…. We now risk deeply harming the very thing that has given the United States an enormous national security and economic advantage…. Simply put, our country is losing ground rapidly to other nations.” In his first two annual budget proposals Trump has proposed deep cuts to certain science-based agencies and programs, many of which Congress dialed back. At his hearing, Droegemeier said he wants to “ensure robust American leadership” in science and technology.
These approaches might help Droegemeier convince Trump that objectives such as “protecting the environment” or “fighting climate change” offer tangible economic benefits as well. Research shows science work is an economic stimulus.
Rapport could be built around technology, too. Trump has cut the OSTP staff and pushed it more toward technology. But Droegemeier can connect the dots for the president to science, too. In May OSTP led a meeting of leaders from 41 tech companies on how to improve and exploit artificial intelligence. AI research, of course, depends on many scientific disciplines, including computer science, robotics, mathematics, neural networks, psychology and natural language processing. All of which, by the way, sounds like a great reason to boost STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. Indeed, Droegemeier said at the hearing STEM was crucial to “an education framework to produce a capable workforce.”
Droegemeier might also try to get Trump’s ear by allying with certain cabinet members.
James Mattis, the long-time Marine who is now secretary of Defense, might be a good partner. In 2017 Mattis fought proposed budget cuts to programs that monitor atmosphere and ocean conditions, saying climate change was already destabilizing the world. If anyone can influence the temperature in the cabinet, we hope it’s a person whose first name is Kelvin.
A subtler yet vital priority for Droegemeier is to try to teach the entire Trump administration how science works—that science is not about being “right” or agreeing with a position but about using evidence, and only evidence, to determine what is true. If he could advocate for evidence-based policies above all else, he could impact not just the traditional “science” agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency but also wider platforms such as economic policy.
Droegemeier might even consider hitting it off with Trump on personal values. On his University of Oklahoma home page, right under his name and title, are big white letters that read “God Bless America!!!” That banner doesn’t seem to be a recent addition to help favor his confirmation. According to Archive.org, the phrase has been there since late 2001.
*Editor’s Note (8/23/18): This sentence was edited after posting to note Marburger’s passing.