Washington needs high-level science and technology expertise – now!


The federal government has not yet spun off the rails, but its engine has sputtered more ominously with each presidential crisis de jour. Policy imperatives are on hold, agency positions are unfilled and the future of the country is endangered.

In the midst of that maelstrom, neither the White House nor Congress is paying any attention to the one issue that intersects almost every facet of modern society. The issue is science.

{mosads}It was the theme of nationwide marches not very long ago, but according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, the protest had little impact on the majority of American voters. And it had virtually no impact on the administration, unless you count replacing respected academic experts on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Committee with industry shills and slashing research budgets.

Both results are extremely troubling, not with as much immediacy as the bizarre White House events of the last few weeks, but with more enduring impacts. Ignoring the enterprise that powers the economy, keeps our nation secure and cures diseases is a prescription for the decline of a great nation.

If Congress and the White House hew to their stated intentions, they will be tackling many critical issues requiring scientific expertise. And at present, neither President Trump nor House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) – who will be initiating much of the anticipated legislation – have easy access to the unbiased and unfettered advice they need. That is dangerous, and it should concern every citizen.

President Trump has yet to name a director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), who in the past has also served as science and technology advisor to the president. And Speaker Ryan has no one in his House Republican Conference with any significant science credentials. Nor can he consult the congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) defunded in 1995, in theory to save money but in practice to keep technology fact checkers from checking his ideological facts.

Except for Richard Nixon, every post-World-War-II president has recognized the importance of having a scientist as a member of his White House team. The need for technical advice has never been greater.

Decisions on how to manage the nuclear weapons stockpile; how to ensure the reliability and security of the electricity grid; how to prepare for future pandemics; how to assess the impacts of climate change; how to prioritize investments in research; and how to evaluate the impacts of tax policies on innovation all require trustworthy science and technology assessments.

If our sources are correct, President Trump – to the extent he recognizes the value of such assessments – is content for now to rely on the advice of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and an unnamed member of Vice President Pence’s staff, neither of whom has any science and technology training. 

The Heritage Foundation, whose playbook the Trump Administration seems to be following, has recommended eliminating OSTP, ceding to the heads of federal agencies the job of advising the president on science and technology issues. That might sound plausible, but there are two problems with it.

First it is rarely the case that heads of Cabinet-level departments have strong science or technology credentials: none do today, although the past three secretaries of Energy have. Mostly, heads of departments with technical matters in their portfolios, such as NASA, Commerce, Defense and State, rely on in-house staff for guidance and analysis. But protocol precludes department staff from providing assistance directly to the president.

Second, although specific programs are housed in individual agencies, few science and technology activities exist in isolation. Issues that cut across agencies require a White House referee, and for decades OSTP has played such a role.

The need for a strong White House referee is also the reason President George H.W. Bush, on the advice of his science advisor, D. Allan Bromley, established the Federal Coordinating Committee for Science and Technology (FCCST) and why Bill Clinton extended its mandate as the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC).

The Heritage Foundation is simply dead wrong. The White House needs its own set of experts to sort out the issues the president confronts and to coordinate science and technology activities across federal agencies.

In Speaker Ryan’s case, it’s not his fault there is no professional physicist, chemist or biologist in the House Republican Conference, as there was from 1993 through 2011 during the tenure of Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), a Ph.D. physicist. And it’s probably too much to expect him to resurrect OTA.

But, at least the speaker should have the wisdom to appoint a chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee who has an appreciation for the value of the nation’s scientists. Instead, he chose Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who has made his mark by regularly calling into question the ethics of scientists and, in the end, politicizing science to an extent rarely, if ever, seen on Capitol Hill.

The speaker and the president should take steps immediately to address the deficits in science and technology expertise in the House and the White House. The nation needs it, and voters should demand it.

Michael S. Lubell is the Mark W. Zemansky Professor of Physics at The City College of the City University of New York and a frequent opinion contributor to The Hill. Burton Richter, an emeritus professor of physical sciences at Stanford, won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1976 and the National Medal of Science in 2014.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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