No one wants to be the White House science adviser

This is the longest stretch any president has left the job empty.

US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump look up at the partial solar eclipse on August 21, 2017.
Credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump look up at the partial solar eclipse on August 21, 2017. Credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

More than a year into the Trump presidency, the White House continues to go without a top science adviser. But new internal logs confirm it did consider a series of candidates last year in an attempt to fill the position.

A calendar obtained by ScienceInsider through a freedom of information request shows that last spring, the White House held several interviews to find someone to become the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

As director of OSTP, this person would be responsible for advising the president and his top aides on science and technology issues in “areas of national concern,” including everything from national security, education, health, and climate change.

Leading the interviews was Michael Kratsios, a top technology adviser and the only current political appointee to the OSTP. Among those helping him was Michael Catanzaro, a top energy policy aide and former oil and gas lobbyist.

For more than a year now the role of science adviser has remained vacant. This is the longest an administration has gone without an OSTP director since the position was introduced in 1976. President George W. Bush’s science adviser was confirmed in October, 2001 and under President Barack Obama it took only 47 days after he won the election to name his science adviser.

The names of those interviewed by President Donald Trump’s team, however, remain unknown; redacted for privacy considerations. While the calendar confirms the White House did give the position some thought — amidst much public scrutiny that it has not been a priority — the anonymity of the candidates “makes it impossible to judge the quality of the applicants,” ScienceInsider’s Jeffrey Mervis writes.

According to the document, three interviews were held for the OSTP Director position on March 2, 2017. Kratsios interviewed the candidates. It’s unclear whether one of these meetings was a follow up interview — it was held with Daris Meeks and Francis Brooke, two top aides to Vice President Mike Pence.

Two more back-to-back interviews were held on April 13, this time with a group of special assistants to the president, a White House counsel, and Catanzaro.

None of these candidates appear to have made the cut because on June 23 a phone call with Catanzaro and Kratsios was held to discuss “ideas” for the OSTP director role. The call lasted half an hour.

There are also two other interviews which took place for roles in OSTP; it is unclear whether these were for the director position or other vacancies. These took place on May 4 and July 24.

After this date, no further interviews were held over the next three months. The last date on the calendar is October 20. OSTP did not respond to a request for comment from ThinkProgress about whether any other interviews have taken place since October, which candidates they were considering, and why the position remains empty.

Despite the continued vacancy, Trump has moved forward with several high-profile decisions with a heavy science component to them. Namely, the decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.

Actions taken to respond to Hurricanes Harvey, Maria, and Irma would have also likely relied on the expertise of a science adviser. And any decisions made to cut budget spending in areas related to science would also see this person involved in the proposals.

Toward the end of January 2018 a group of Democratic members of Congress wrote a letter to Trump urging him to fill the OSTP director position. This followed on from a similar letter last year which said without a “qualified, objective scientists” they feared that he may “continue to be vulnerable to misinformation and fake news.”

The January letter echoes these concerns and specifically raises climate change as an area which has suffered. It highlights a December tweet where the president confused basic science regarding the difference between weather and long-term temperature trends.

Citing efforts to repeal the Clean Power Plan, and removing mentions of climate change from the national security strategy, the letter states: “More broadly, your administration has repeatedly downplayed or ignored the importance of scientific fact and scientific research.”

“We believe that these mistakes might have been avoided if you had availed yourself to the kind of expert advice which previous presidents relied on when making such decisions,” it continues. “We are even more concerned, however, about what might occur if the country faces an unforeseen catastrophe.”