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.)
But President Trump has not yet named a science advisor and/or OSTP director. (These two roles, which are administratively distinct, have traditionally been filled by the same person, although there is no legal requirement to do that.) OSTP has been limping along with a skeleton crew of career civil servants and exactly one member of the Trump “landing team” in residence. Some people close to the new president have publicly questioned whether these science positions are needed in the White House at all. And Trump’s other appointments, budget proposals, and executive orders to date betray little evidence of input rooted in understanding the importance of science and technology to the nation’s well-being.
So let me explain again here the roles that senior scientists and technologists have historically played in the White House, and why it would be unwise in the extreme for the president to let the current vacuum in science advice in the White House persist.
Insights from science and technology are relevant to many of the decisions about actions and policies that a president must make — whether they deal with the economy, public health, urban issues, transportation, agriculture, land use, the environment, or national security. What are the potential benefits of new gene-editing technologies, and what are the risks? What effect does hotter weather have on agricultural productivity? Could terrorists make an effective nuclear bomb if they were able to steal or buy plutonium or highly enriched uranium?
While scientific insights won’t be the only factors the president considers in any given decision, it would be foolish for him to make policy or take action without having the relevant scientific facts. If access to those facts is to be timely, the president needs people close at hand, in the White House, who can find, vet, and explain them.
The first responsibility of the science advisor and the OSTP, then, is to make sure the president and his other senior advisors have — and understand — the relevant scientific facts. To do that, the science advisor must draw upon the best experts inside and outside government, and ensure that the information provided to the president and his advisors is the most up-to-date and authoritative possible. This function is often called “science and technology for policy.” Its effective execution requires that the science advisor have direct access to the president and that the senior officials of a well-staffed OSTP be “at the table” for all policy discussions where insights from science and technology might be germane.
The second responsibility of the science advisor and the OSTP is to help the president develop “policy for science and technology.” This work aims to answer questions like these: How much money should federal departments and agencies spend on research and development and how should it be allocated? Should the government strengthen the incentives for the private sector to invest in research and development? (In the United States, the private sector currently pays for about 70 percent of all R&D while the federal government pays for a bit less than 30 percent — but for more than half of all basic research.) What kinds of public-private-academic partnerships could accelerate progress toward societal goals, such as defeating cancer or slowing climate change, and what can the federal government do to help build such partnerships? With what countries and on what topics should government-to-government cooperation in science and technology be pursued?
The third responsibility of the science advisor and OSTP is to represent the president’s science and technology priorities and policies in interactions with other senior White House officials, Cabinet departments and agencies with science and technology responsibilities, the Congress, the national nongovernmental science and technology community, and both governmental and nongovernmental foreign science leaders. Carrying out this responsibility means attending cabinet meetings; regularly testifying before congressional committees; and meeting with university presidents, directors of national laboratories, CEOs of high-tech industries, the leaders of science- and technology-oriented civil society groups, and the science ministers and chief governmental science advisors of other countries.
Every president stocks the White House with people who can advise him on the economy, national defense, and foreign relations. And nearly all presidents in modern times have understood that science and technology are so central to all of those top-tier issues — and practically every other issue on the nation’s agenda — that science and technology advice in the White House is no less essential.
One must hope that President Trump comes to understand this, too.
John P. Holdren is professor of environmental policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He served as President Obama’s science advisor and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from January 2009 to January 2017.