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Presidents invariably encounter key moments where they need to rely on scientific expertise. George W. Bush faced an anthrax attack after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Barack Obama faced the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the Ebola outbreak. Now President Trump has made a momentous decision about climate change.
“When the crisis occurs, whether it’s an oil well blowout or an emerging disease or a tunnel collapse at a nuclear facility, that’s too late to get up to speed,” said Rush Holt, the chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “You want people who are up to speed before the crisis occurs.”
Trump is facing science-focused problems and issues with a key limitation: lack of staffing. As of June 6, Trump had announced a nominee for just seven, or 15 percent, of 46 top science posts in the federal government that require Senate confirmation, according to a Post analysis.
This failure to fill top science jobs across the federal government has become even more pointed in light of his Paris choice. Recaps of Trump’s decision-making process have highlighted many influences upon it, but none of them principally scientific in nature.
It’s also not clear whom he would consult for advice about climate change: Trump has not appointed a presidential science adviser, nor has he appointed a head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a lead federal agency that focuses on climate change science, or a chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Trump tweeted Monday that Democrats were “taking forever to approve my people,” but that wouldn’t apply in the case of these science jobs — because no one has been formally nominated yet.
Overall, Trump is moving slower on science appointments than recent past presidents of both parties.
By June 6, 2009, President Obama had formally announced nominees for 25 of these posts (or 26 if you include one position, the Energy Department’s undersecretary for energy and environment, that no longer exists).
President George W. Bush, too, was ahead of Trump on science-focused appointments at this time in the first year of his presidency. By June 6, 2001, Bush had sent the Senate nominations for at least 12 of them — and 14 if you count two science-and-technology-focused positions that no longer exist.
The Post’s ongoing analysis of vacant science positions is based on a National Academy of Sciences listing of the “most critical federal science and technology appointments” but is confined to Senate-confirmed posts. This list was then combined with a broader and ongoing analysis by the Partnership for Public Service of the administration’s progress in filling 559 key Senate-confirmed posts in government, as well as data from the group on the timing of nominations in previous administrations.
The list does not include the surgeon general. Trump was criticized for removing Vivek H. Murthy, Obama’s last appointed surgeon general, in April even though he had close to two years remaining in his term. “U.S. surgeons general are not supposed to be fired midterm,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said at the time.
Among prominent science-focused posts, Trump has thus far named, and gotten confirmed, his commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Scott Gottlieb. Two other key officials with science-heavy portfolios at the Department of Health and Human Services have been named but not confirmed: Brett Giroir for assistant secretary for health and Stephen Parente for assistant secretary for planning and evaluation.
In the White House, Kevin Hassett has been named to chair the Council of Economic Advisers (a post requiring expertise in economic research) and Neomi Rao has been named to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs within the Office of Management and Budget. Neither has been confirmed by the Senate.
Finally, Trump has moved to fill two open posts at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That rounds out his seven science-focused appointments so far.
The most significant science post still unfilled is that of the presidential science adviser, a top White House official who also runs the Office of Science and Technology Policy and is supported by four Senate-confirmed associate directors. That’s whose job it would be, in general, to brief the president on science and how it applies to policy.
By this time in his first year, Obama had his presidential science adviser confirmed by the Senate. That adviser, John Holdren, also had two Senate-confirmed associate directors in place. The Obama administration also had a chair of its Council on Environmental Quality, Nancy Sutley, in place in January 2009.
Trump has also failed to fill his President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, a White House body whose membership does not require Senate confirmation. Obama named its co-chairs before even taking office.
Some agencies, like the Energy Department and the Department of Defense, are entirely without science-focused and technical leadership. The Energy Department has seven major unfilled science posts.
In May, the understaffed department was confronted with a major science-focused challenge when a tunnel containing radioactive waste partially collapsed at the Hanford nuclear cleanup site in Washington state.
Trump has not yet named anyone to serve as the department’s assistant secretary for environmental management, the position overseeing a vast $ 6.3 billion annual cleanup program for the nation’s nuclear waste sites, including Hanford.
The Energy Department says that no radiation was released because of the tunnel collapse, but it has also admitted that the tunnel hole could have been open for days before it was noticed.
The department is “like a giant 100,000-ton aircraft carrier,” said Robert Alvarez, a scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies who served in the Energy Department during the Clinton administration. “So you now have Rick Perry at the helm of this giant vessel, and he doesn’t have any hydraulic lines connected to the rudder.”
As with so many posts throughout the government, a career government official is filling the role of assistant secretary for environmental management in an “acting” capacity. But Alvarez suggested a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary would be better positioned to make the case to the White House or Congress for more funds to deal with the Hanford site.
“We’re spending $2 billion a year at that site, and it definitely deserves some serious adult supervision at headquarters,” he said.
Bush and Obama had already moved to fill this Energy Department post by this time in their respective administrations, and Obama’s nominee, Ines Triay, had already been confirmed by the Senate.
It’s important to note that for some key science posts, Trump or his administration may also have installed a person in an acting or other capacity, without formally naming that individual as the nominee or submitting a nomination to the Senate for confirmation. Or a likely nominee may have been named in the press. Still, those appointments wouldn’t be counted here.
In addition to how he has been advised on climate change, another major concern is that the Trump administration has proposed a federal budget that cuts deeply into science-related funding, even as administrators of many key research-focused offices have not yet been named, much less confirmed by the Senate.
For instance, Trump has not named an assistant secretary for research and development at the Environmental Protection Agency, the official who heads that agency’s research arm, the Office of Research and Development. And yet nonetheless, the administration is seeking extremely deep cuts in the EPA’s scientific research programs. Air and energy research would be cut under the budget from $91.7 million in 2017 down to $30.6 million in 2018, or more than 66 percent.
Obama formally nominated the chemist Paul Anastas to this post on May 21, 2009.
Chris Mooney covers climate change, energy, and the environment. He has reported from the 2015 Paris climate negotiations, the Northwest Passage, and the Greenland ice sheet, among other locations, and has written four books about science, politics and climate change. Follow