WASHINGTON — Nearly all of the Obama administration’s science staff has departed the White House since January, and the Trump administration has moved slowly to replace them. In the meantime, however, an unofficial shadow office, stocked with Obama loyalists, is quietly at work.
The network, described to STAT by officials from the previous administration who are involved, is informal yet organized, allowing for a far-reaching if largely inconspicuous effort to continue advocating for the Obama science agenda.
Participants have provided counsel to Democratic lawmakers and their staffs on Capitol Hill, and they have held group-wide strategy sessions much in the same fashion as they did when they worked out of a fourth-floor wing in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House.
At a time when the Trump administration has flouted the advice of the broader scientific community, they see themselves as filling a void within the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which has been serving the president since 1976.
“It is certainly true that MANY of the former OSTP staffers are working, in a variety of ways, to fill the void,” John Holdren, who led Obama’s OSTP and who has taken part in some of the new group’s activities, wrote in an email to STAT. “Me, too.”
While Trump declared on Earth Day that “rigorous science is critical,” much of the scientific community began expressing alarm at the new administration’s positions even before his inauguration, including Trump’s comments on vaccine safety and his stated interest in rolling back steps to address climate change. President Obama, by contrast, was a self-described “science geek.”
In interviews, members of the new Obama group — which numbers in the dozens — said they have remained more engaged than they expected to before Trump’s victory in November. Beyond fielding policy questions from congressional offices, they have consulted with scientific societies, and advised organizers of the March for Science, among other activists — a few have even made those organizations their new professional homes.
They have also assisted in analyzing the impact of White House budget proposals — which have outlined deep cuts to federal research agencies — and the impact of policies including Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accords.
Multiple Democratic congressional staffers said to STAT that they have remained in contact with former OSTP officials they had worked with during the previous administration.
For the most part, the members have kept in touch through a number of email lists and semi-frequent conference calls. But the network’s infrastructure is robust; when first contacted for comment, Holdren referred STAT to Fae Jencks, the office’s former director of public engagement, who he said “has been coordinating communications among the OSTP diaspora.”
Holdren declined a request for an interview. But former Obama staffers who have participated in the conference calls said he had stressed to them the importance of finding ways to “tithe” their time for outreach and engagement.
On a practical level, there are ethical and legal restrictions over what former science officials can do. And in a city where former White House staffers can easily fall into the trope of an oppositional shill for an out-of-power boss, many have also been wary of making too big a splash.
“I’ve tried to keep a low profile in terms of my volunteer policy work,” said one former OSTP official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “If I’m advocating for something as a former Obama official, it might not be particularly effective.”
The conference calls have occasionally included a few Obama-era OSTP staffers who, at the time, were still working at the White House. Participants on the calls said those staffers were particularly careful about if and when they spoke.
Regardless of their current status, however, many members of the group say they are participating in the discussions out of a sense of necessity. “There was no chance that this team was going to go work only in Silicon Valley or for lobbying firms,” said the former staffer. “A lot of people feel a sense of personal responsibility to use what we learned for the greater good at a time when the federal government is averse to things we think are really important.”
He noted that under the Trump administration, “the cavalry isn’t coming.”
Roughly 100 staff members from the Obama administration have left OSTP since January. The Trump administration has added only “about 10 new members” since then, according to an administration official who was not authorized to speak on the record.
Even once a planned OSTP expansion is complete, the office will have roughly 60 employees, equivalent to its size under former President George W. Bush but a far cry from the 135 or so employed as recently as December.
The administration official said the office has received less attention as other power centers in the administration have emerged to lessen its role, especially on the technology side. One is the Office of American Innovation, run by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Another is 18F, the startup-inspired wing of the General Services Administration.
The office’s slow growth stands in stark contrast with Obama’s White House, which announced it would appoint Holdren as OSTP director and special assistant to the president for science in December 2008, a month before Obama took office. Trump, meanwhile, still has not appointed a top science adviser.
The office’s most significant post-inauguration addition was that of Michael Kratsios — who worked previously as chief of staff to Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley mogul who played a role in selecting Trump’s health staff during the transition — as its deputy chief technology officer. OSTP also recently hired its new legislative lead: Sean Bonyun, a longtime communications staffer for Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
But the pace of hiring has been too slow for the tastes of the recently departed staff. As Kei Koizumi, formerly the OSTP’s assistant director for research and development, put it: “There’s no new me.”
Democrats on the Hill are less concerned with differences over science policy, one congressional aide said, than with an absence of engagement on science at the upper levels of the administration. That void has left lawmakers to lean on the former OSTP staffers.
Koizumi, who has since returned to a post at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, acknowledged that there are “some aspects of my old job that I continue to do.”
“I get calls from congressional staff, wanting my insights on a bill that I was working on while I was there. And I think that’s natural,” he said. “I expect that’s going to taper down once there are people at OSTP who will pick up work on some of these bills and efforts.”
But former insiders acknowledge this is not a typical transition.
“I think there are just more instances in which there seems to be a willful disregard for the facts,” said Tom Kalil, who served as OSTP’s deputy director for technology and innovation and worked as a top science and technology adviser on former President Bill Clinton’s National Economic Council.
To Clinton alumni, Kalil said, the Bush administration took action on select issues that upset the scientific community — for example, on the issue of embryonic stem cell research — but didn’t wage what now feels like a frontal attack on their field.
Many former OSTP staffers have banded together and lobbied the White House, directly and indirectly, to back off its decision to delay and likely scrap the International Entrepreneur Rule, which would have allowed many foreigners with financial support for new business ventures to enter the country. And many worked to highlight the real-world industry impact when Trump announced he was banning nearly all immigration from six majority-Muslim countries, a move roundly panned by the biotechnology industry.
Some have said that their exit from OSTP has actually set them free from the strictures of serving in the White House to share their own opinions perhaps more frankly than before — and more free to workshop ideas with Hill aides without working through a legislative affairs office.
The projects they are working on include an initiative about women and minorities in STEM professions, advancing a framework for “policy entrepreneurship” — a pet project of Kalil’s — and keeping the country at large informed about the true impact of inattention to research and development.
More broadly, former OSTP staffers said they are simply worried about the future of science policy, noting that the Trump administration has proposed dramatically reducing available resources.
“What policy process resulted in the Trump administration thinking the NIH needed less money?” asked Kumar Garg, who spent eight years at OSTP and now works at the Society for Science and the Public. “Was OSTP at the table?”
“The reality in which our economy grows is we produce products and services the rest of the world hasn’t created yet,” Kalil said. “We have to come up with what’s next.”