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Senate confirms Trump’s science and tech adviser after lengthy vacancy

Senate lawmakers late Wednesday confirmed Kelvin Droegemeier, an extreme-weather expert, as the White House’s top science and tech adviser, filling a critical administration role that had been vacant for nearly two years under President Trump.

Droegemeier, who had served as a top meteorologist at the University of Oklahoma, is set to become leader of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, an arm of the White House that helps guide federal research spending and informs the government’s policies in areas such as artificial intelligence, climate change, precision medicine and online privacy.

Before the Senate confirmed Droegemeier by voice vote, the vacancy at OSTP under Trump had set a record: Never before had a modern president waited so long to install an administrator in that office. The delay had drawn sharp criticism from lawmakers and academics, who said the president had erred by forging ahead with his policy agenda — including his 2017 decision to leave a key international carbon-reduction pact — without a top science adviser in place.

But Trump’s decision in July to nominate Droegemeier — who previously helped guide federal science research under both Democratic and Republican presidents — earned the White House widespread accolades from the research community. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, applauded Droegemeier’s scientific credentials. “Simply put, this is a terrific choice,” McPherson said in a statement issued after the nomination.

Droegemeier is the first meteorologist to hold this position. Many researchers expressed hope Droegemeier might give them a louder voice in Trump’s decision-making process. He did not face significant opposition during his Senate confirmation process, though it took lawmakers months to vote.

Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, tweeted late Wednesday she looked forward to working with Droegemeier. “Congratulations on your confirmation, finally(!!!)”

Contacted Thursday, a spokesman for OSTP was not available to comment because of the government shutdown.

Despite the earlier absence of an administrator, OSTP over the past two years has forged ahead with a full agenda. It has sought to advance private-sector research in areas such as artificial intelligence, in part by convening tech giants and other industry experts for a new, policy-focused task force in 2018. It has helped guide the White House’s early work to put more self-flying drones in U.S. skies and expand Internet access to rural areas. During that time, the office’s most senior official was Michael Kratsios, a former aide to venture capitalist Peter Thiel. Kratsios joined the administration in its early days to serve as deputy chief technology officer.

Those and other issues now fall to Droegemeier, who, like other appointees in the administration, faces a challenge in breaking through to Trump’s inner circle. His predecessor, John Holdren, had a close relationship with President Barack Obama, and OSTP had a much larger staff under Obama’s watch.

“We hope that the president and senior administrators use him more fully,” said former congressman Rush Holt, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “In some administrations, the head of OSTP has a formal role as an adviser to the president, has direct access to the Oval Office, has responsibilities on the National Security Council and the Domestic Policy Council. In other administrations, that’s not so. We’ll see how this develops.”

Holt said the challenge will be especially acute on climate change. Droegemeier’s background in extreme weather contrasts greatly with the president, who said in November in response to a report about the effects of climate change: “I don’t believe it.”

“I hope he will find some way to use his background, combined with his very pleasant and accessible manner, to elevate the concern for action with respect to climate change. That’s going to be hard for him,” Holt said.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who oversaw the committee that questioned Droegemeier in the previous Congress, praised him on Thursday for his ability to “communicate effectively with both ends of the political spectrum,” adding: “He’ll need to continue doing that to be successful, and I’m confident he will.”

Droegemeier’s was one of more than 60 confirmations Wednesday night, which included James W. Carroll as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Mary Neumayr as chair of the Council on Environmental Quality and Alexandra Dunn and William McIntosh as assistant administrators in the Environmental Protection Agency.