During the eight years I served as President Obama’s science advisor and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), people not closely familiar with how the executive branch works often asked me why these roles exist: “Why does the president need a science advisor and a whole White House office focused on science and technology policy? What do they do?”
Every US president starting with Franklin D. Roosevelt in his third term has had a senior scientist or engineer advising him directly. A supporting full-time staff in the White House was added during President Eisenhower’s second term. Given this history (interrupted only briefly when President Nixon, unhappy with the advice he was getting, fired his science advisor and dissolved the corresponding White House office), one might suppose there are good reasons for the existence of these positions. My OSTP colleagues and I were always happy to explain what those reasons are. (Among many other venues, we did that on the OSTP website, archived here.)
Will Trump or anyone in the executive branch of government listen?
Thank you for posting today’s article on importance of OSTP. I am a huge fan of what you were able to accomplish, especially with improving coordination of Federal R&D, promoting the prize model, and coordination on STEM Ed initiatives. I conduct research in transportation infrastructure development and over the last three years have observed an amazing shift by cities, transit agencies, DOTs, and others in collaborating on multi-agency Smart City initiatives. I don’t believe most people are aware of what OSTP accomplished in this area and the potential negative impacts to Smart Growth initiatives moving forward if federal leadership and investments are eliminated .
Trump obviously views science at something inferior to business interests – a mere service provider for business and industry rather than the great human endeavor of understanding the true nature of the universe. This person seems to strictly think in terms of short term cost-benefit fit analysis with system boundaries strictly defined by money flows and very limited time and complexity horizons. It is clear to every scientist that he does not even possess the scientific prowess of a good high school student, and even in his own claimed field of expertise he is incapable of even making the most basic distinctions between Business Management and Economics. He possibly thinks he won’t need a science advisor because he thinks, as he himself suggested, to have an IQ so high as to allow him to look through everything himself. Which of course nobody has. The man has severe issues on the “sapere aude” and “gnothi seauton” fronts. Dangerous issues for a time in history where mankind and the biosphere at large face numerous intertwined and potentially existential threats. Scientific thinking, understanding of complexity, wise action may well be a matter of planetary survival. That we (humans) elect people like Trump as leaders suggests to me we have a long way to go to become wise planet managers. We will be judged by the unforgiving laws of nature. The judgement may well be the biblical mene mene tekel. Trump getting a science advisor won’t change a bit about that.
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