In 1993, Gelernter was seriously injured by a letter bomb sent by Ted Kaczynski, the anti-technology terrorist known as the Unabomber.
Beyond computer science circles, Gelernter has made a name for himself as a vehement critic of modern academia. In his 2013 book, “America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered in the Obamacrats),” he condemned “belligerent leftists” and blamed intellectualism for the disintegration of patriotism and traditional family values. He attributed the decline in American culture to “an increasing Jewish presence at top colleges.” (Gelernter himself is Jewish.)
In some ways, Gelernter is a characteristic Trump appointee. He shares the president-elect's bombastic rhetorical style and disdain for elites. In an October op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which he reluctantly endorsed Trump, Gelernter compared President Obama to a “third-rate tyrant” and called Hillary Clinton a “phony.”
But he would be an unusual choice for the role of science adviser. If appointed, he would be the first computer scientist to take the job, and the first adviser who is not a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He has expressed doubt about the reality of man-made climate change — something that 97 percent of active researchers agree is a problem. And his anti-intellectualism makes him an outlier among scientists.
Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he hadn't heard of Gelernter until Tuesday.
“He’s certainly not mainstream in the science community or particularly well known,” Rosenberg said. “His views even on most of the key science questions aren't known. Considering the huge range of issues the White House needs to consider, I don’t know if he has that kind of capability.”
Neither Gelernter nor the Trump transition team responded to requests for comment.
Traditionally, the president's science adviser is also the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which works with agencies and the private sector on scientific issues. He or she — though no woman has held the post — serves as the link between the White House and experts in the scientific community during natural disasters, industrial crises and disease outbreaks.
Unlike past science advisers, who were members of the major scientific societies, including the National Academy, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Geophysical Union, Gelernter won't have established relationships with big names in that community. If a crisis arose, Rosenberg noted, he would have to build connections from scratch.
Shortly after the presidential election, the leaders of some two-dozen scientific societies sent a letter to the president-elect urging him to quickly appoint a science adviser and offering to meet with him to discuss science in the new administration. Rush Holt, chief executive of the AAAS, told The Washington Post that the letter was “noted” by Trump's transition team, but the group never received any other response.