A White House council that’s supposed to study everything from nanotechnology to biological warfare has sat dormant for more than seven months under President Donald Trump — but the administration says it’ll staff up and resume its work soon.
Chartered in its modern form in 2000, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology long has operated as the White House’s main interface with academics, industry experts and others who can help shape the government’s approach on a wide array of complex, cutting-edge issues.
Under Trump, though, there’s no one on the council, known as PCAST. It’s one of many science-and-tech advisory arms at the White House that’s still severely depleted in staff, a series of vacancies made all the more striking by the president’s previous push to cut federal research spending.
In the meantime, PCAST’s charter, technically, is set to run out: Obama’s executive order authorizing the council expires at the end of September.
At the moment, a spokesman for Trump’s tech team told Recode the president is on track to sign his own executive order re-establishing PCAST this month. The process of staffing it will then fall to the leader of the White House’s other research team, the Office of Science and Technology Policy. But that office, known as OSTP, still has no director, and the president has offered no timeline for when he’ll nominate someone for the job.
Even then, filling the ranks of PCAST might prove especially difficult in the coming months.
For one thing, Trump’s approach to science issues, including his move to withdraw the United States from a major international carbon emissions reduction pact, has drawn opposition from the academic and business communities. And Trump’s other recent, controversial actions and comments — from his moves on immigration to remarks about Charlottesville, Va., in August — already had prompted many tech executives to cease advising the White House.
Amid the turmoil, veterans of the last administration’s science-and-tech team stress the group is essential.
“The PCAST under Obama wrote more than 20 or 25 reports that dealt with recommendations to the president on matters of pressing concerns related to science and technology,” said Cristin Dorgelo, a former chief of staff at OSTP, in an interview this week.
Under Obama, PCAST included the likes of Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet; Eric Lander, a top academic at MIT; Maxine Savitz, a former leading executive at Honeywell; Christine Cassel, the planning dean of Kaiser Permanente School of Medicine; and Craig Mundie, a former Microsoft executive. It tackled a range of issues, like advanced manufacturing, big data, health IT and more.
For Dorgelo and others, though, there initially was reason to believe that the Trump administration considered nixing PCAST altogether. The uncertainty arose from a report published quietly by the Congressional Research Service, lawmakers’ personal think tank of sorts, earlier this month.
Much of PCAST’s budget currently comes from another part of the government, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science. Its involvement is a long story — blame it on Congress — but the DOE office is actually one that Trump has targeted for cuts, largely because of its work on climate change. That’s reflected in the DOE’s budget request in 2018, which also included this note: “The PCAST advisory committee has dissolved and [the DOE Office of Science] is not aware of any plans to reform this committee in FY 2018.”
The White House, however, says PCAST isn’t going anywhere, though there’s fear it might just have fewer dollars and staff than in the past. If that ultimately pans out, Dorgelo said it would be severely limiting for the science and tech advisory council, which relied on those funds to bring together academics and industry experts outside of Washington, D.C. “OSTP would find it near impossible to operate the committee ... without the support of DOE funding,” she said.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.